Gardner takes home top honors in Fielding Bible Awards

The voting for the 2010 edition of the Fielding Bible Awards are out, and Brett Gardner took home the top spot among all leftfielders. He was either first (six votes) or second (four) on all ten ballots, topping Carl Crawford by a not-small margin (96 to 86). It didn’t factor into voting, but Gardner did finish with the highest UZR (+22.3) and UZR/150 (+39.7) in baseball this season, regardless of position. Pretty sweet.

As for everyone else, Mark Teixeira finished fourth, Robbie Cano sixth, and Curtis Granderson eighth at their respective positions. All of the other regulars were no-shows in the top tens, unsurprisingly.

What Went Right: Boone Logan’s Second Half

(Paul Sancya/AP)

Real quick: take a look at Boone Logan’s 2010 numbers. They look pretty spiffy, no? You can’t ask much more from a young lefty reliever. What made Logan look even better was the value he provided. Although he faced just 169 batters in 40 innings, he still produced 0.4 WAR, which was 0.6 more than the other player the Yankees acquired from the Braves last winter. Since Logan provided more value this year and will continue to provide more in the future, we can accurately term this the Boone Logan Trade. But it wasn’t always that way.

Because the Yankees started the season stocked with bullpen arms, Logan started the year in AAA Scranton. He made his way to the big league club early on, and made his first appearance on April 20. Things didn’t go so well during that first stint. Logan faced 49 batters in 10.2 innings and walked seven batters while striking out six. It led to six earned runs, a 5.06 ERA. The Yankees optioned him, but then recalled him again in mid-June, though that didn’t exactly go well either. This time Logan faced 33 batters in 7.2 innings, striking out seven and walking five. The results were better, but he clearly still had control issues.

Logan’s 3.93 first half ERA didn’t look so bad, but his walk issues made it hard to trust him against tough left-handed hitters. He finished the half with 12 walks in 18.1 innings, leading to an opponent OBP of .390. He threw 314 pitches to 82 batters, almost four per. Clearly something would have to change if he was going to stick in the second half. By the time the Yankees recalled him for the third time in the season, something had.

The second half didn’t open ideally for Logan, as he allowed a run in 1.2 innings against the Rays. The good news is that he didn’t walk a batter, and he threw 15 of 23 pitches for strikes (65%). He continued to throw strikes in subsequent appearances, and it paid off. He walked just eight in 21.2 second-half innings, a marked improvement over his first half numbers. It led to a mere .264 opponents’ OBP. Hitters also had trouble making solid contact, as his BABIP went down to .235. This was due, in large part, to a mere 8 percent line drive rate, down from 25 percent in the first half.

How did Logan accomplish this mid-season transformation? Part of it was certainly throwing more strikes. In the first half he threw 60 percent of his pitches for strikes, while in the second half that was up to 63 percent. That might not seem like a huge increase, but it can make a big difference when you’re often working one batter at a time. But it doesn’t account for the entire difference. The biggest change, as most of us can probably intuit, was pitch selection and effectiveness.

In the first half Logan was extremely fastball heavy, throwing it 70.9 percent of the time. He got a meager 8.9 percent whiff rate on it, leading to a 21.5 percent in play rate. In the second half he started leaning on his slider a lot more, using it 32.4 percent of his time. Opponents put it in play just 10.2 percent of the time, while whiffing 27.8 percent of the time. The pitch ended up being his best per FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Values, 3.8 runs above average overall, and 2.34 per 100 pitches. All it took was him using it more and commanding it better.*

*Looking at the PitchFX numbers, Logan got -0.07 inches of vertical break and -1.13 inches of horizontal break on the slider in the first half. In other words, it darted downward and towards a right-handed batter. In the second half it was 2.02 inches of vertical break and -0.29 inches horizontal. That might seem like less movement, but I have a pet theory on this. It basically goes that Logan was letting the slider fly more in the first half and was a bit more careful with it in the second half. He might have had more movement in the first half, but he was wild with it. In the second half the lower break figures point to a greater command over the pitch. Again, this is just a pet theory, but I’d love to hear some point-counterpoint on this if anyone is interested.

Just so you can see the difference, here are Logan’s slider plots from the first and second halves.

First half

Second half

Everything was away in the second half, and he buried plenty in the dirt. It’s tough to pick out the subtleties, because he threw far more in the second half than in the first. But I do think it’s clear that he kept the slider below the zone in the second half, while he was low and away in the first half. This probably led to the pitch being a lot more effective.

Given his second half performance, it’s hard to not like Logan as the primary lefty in 2011. He showed great improvements, from his peripheral numbers — 10.38 K/9, 3.32 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9 in the second half — to his pitch selection and command. Whether he can maintain these improvements remains to be seen, but he’ll get every chance to do so. With Damaso Marte out for most of, if not all of, the 2011 season, Logan becomes the primary lefty in the pen. Six months ago that would have left me feeling queasy. Amazing what a little improvement can do.

The Yankees and the Rule 5 Draft

One of my favorite events of the baseball year is the annual Rule 5 Draft, which takes place during the Winter Meetings in December (apparently it’s going to be earlier than that this year) and is designed to help advance the careers of players stuck in the minors. The rules are pretty simple; any player selected has to stick on his new team’s 25-man roster all season or be offered back to his old club for half the original $50,000 claiming fee. The Yankees have lost a few players to the Rule 5 gods over the years, most notably Kanekoa Teixeira (Mariners) and Zach Kroenke (Diamondbacks) last season.

Last year the Yankees traded Brian Bruney to the Nationals for the player to be named later, though they worked out a deal with Washington that gave them the first overall pick in the R5D. They drafted outfielder Jamie Hoffmann, gave him a look in Spring Training, and ultimately decided to return him to the Dodgers. A few years before that they rolled the dice with Josh Phelps. Rule 5 picks rarely stick and when they do they’re often spare parts like middle relievers or bench players. Every once in a while there will be a Dan Uggla or Johan Santana or Joakim Soria or Josh Hamilton though, which is what makes it so interesting.

For all intents and purposes, high school players drafted in 2006 and college players drafted in 2007 (or earlier, of course) are eligible for this year’s Rule 5 Draft. Through the miracle of the internet, Donnie Collins provided us with a full list of Yankee farmhands – confirmed by VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman – eligible for this year’s Rule 5 Draft. For prospect nerds like me, it’s pretty much a gold mine. Jesus Montero, despite signing as a 16 year old in 2006, is not eligible this year. Don’t ask me how, I don’t completely understand the eligibility rules, but all I know is that the team confirmed he isn’t eligible.

There are currently 43 players on the Yanks’ 40-man roster since Al Aceves, Damaso Marte, and Nick Johnson are sitting on the 60-day DL. Johnson, Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, Chad Moeller, Marcus Thames, Javy Vazquez, and Kerry Wood all go away once free agency starts next week. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte will come off the 40-man as well, but they’re coming back or will be replaced by someone. That puts the Yanks at 36 players, and you have to assume they’ll sign a few free agents, so let’s call it an even 40. Cut candidates include Sergio Mitre, Dustin Moseley, and Chad Gaudin, but let’s play it safe and say that two of them will be back. Reegie Corona and Royce Ring can go, ditto Steve Garrison.

That gives the Yankees four 40-man roster spots to use for protecting prospects from the Rule 5 Draft. Dellin Betances and Brandon Laird are absolute no-brainers, so we’re already down to just a pair of spots. I see four realistic candidates for these spots: George Kontos, Lance Pendleton, Ryan Pope, and Craig Heyer. Almost everyone else on the list can be left unprotected for obvious reasons, and I don’t believe Melky Mesa and Bradley Suttle are advanced enough to stick on a big league 25-man roster all season. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of them being returned at some point should they get picked.

Let’s break down the cases for Kontos, Pendleton, Pope, and Heyer…

George Kontos
The Greek God of Pitching returned from Tommy John surgery this June and transitioned from starter to reliever. Kontos pitched well after coming back from surgery (3.37 FIP in 45 IP) and is currently getting his brains beat in (8 IP, 20 baserunners, 13 runs) like every other pitcher in the Arizona Fall League. The 25-year-old righty has firm stuff (low-90’s heat, good slider, eh change) tailored for a relief role, which is realistically the only spot he’d fill for the Yanks. His minor league strikeout rate at and above Double-A is very good (8.6 K/9), but the walks are a touch high (3.5 BB/9) and he’s always been homer prone (one longball for every eleven innings pitched as a pro). The equipment is there for Kontos to be a serviceable reliever.

Lance Pendleton
The Yanks’ fourth round pick in 2005, Pendleton missed the entire 2006 season due to Tommy John surgery (damn Rice pitchers). He’s been an absolute workhorse ever since, throwing a total of 445.1 innings (3.28 FIP) in the last three years, including 154.2 this year. The elder statesmen of this group, Pendleton is already 27, so his solid but not overwhelming rates (8.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.9 HR9) have to be taken with grain of salt since he’s always been older than the competition. I’m not sure if and how much the scouting report has changed through the years, but he was a low-90’s fastball guy with a curve and change back when he was drafted. It’s enough that he can start, and frankly he’s probably no worse than Moseley. At the very least he’s cheaper.

Ryan Pope
Pope’s always been an interesting case just because he the second player ever drafted out of the Savannah College of Art and Design. A year ago we wouldn’t have even been having this conversation, but the 24-year-old righty put himself on the map this summer after shifting into a relief role. He went from a fringy guy without swing-and-miss stuff (6.9 K/9 before 2010) to a dominant reliever, striking out 9.7 batters per nine while walking just 1.8 unintentionally. The homers are a bit of an issue (0.9 HR/9 as a reliever), but that’s life. We have to be careful with the sample (just 59 IP as a reliever), but Pope’s definitely put himself into the mix as a bullpen prospect.

Craig Heyer
Heyer’s been sneaky good since signing as a 22nd round pick back in 2007, earning the praise of Keith Law recently. Still just 24 years old, his walk (just 14 unintentional walks the last two seasons, or 0.8 BB/9) and homer (0.3 HR/9 career) rates are the stuff of legend, but the problem is that he doesn’t miss many bats (5.1 K/9). Heyer also has yet to pitch above High-A. The Yankees sent him (and Pope) to the AzFL to get a longer look, so you know he’s at least on their minds. The stuff is fine (click the link above for a scouting report), but the experience isn’t.

* * *

Of those four, I’m taking Kontos and Pope. Pendleton will almost definitely be selected since cheap spot starters/long men are always in demand around the league, but that’s the cost of doing business. Heyer might get picked, but chances are he’ll be offered back at some point. Kontos and Pope have by far the best chance of being impact players for the Yankees in 2011, and more importantly have a better chance of sticking on another club’s 25-man roster next year. The Yanks need to keep replenishing their pipeline of young and cheap strikeout relievers, and these two are next in line. If they somehow clear up a fifth 40-man spot, I’d go with Pendleton over Heyer given how much closer he is.

If you’re losing players in the Rule 5 Draft, it’s a good sign, not necessarily a bad thing. It means you have players in your system other teams covet, which is one of the caveats of a deep farm system. The Yanks have some tough decisions to make this year and well definitely lose a player or three, but that’s life. the important thing is that they keep the right ones.

Hoffmann, Kontos photos both courtesy of the AP.

The Yankees and Hisashi Iwakuma

It’s no secret that the Yankees need to acquire at least one starting pitcher this winter, and it’s even less of a secret that they want that pitcher to be Cliff Lee. They won’t be able to pursue him until the free agency period begins five days after the end of the World Series, but that applies to MLB players only. As MLBTR noted yesterday, the Rakuten Golden Eagles are making ace righty Hisashi Iwakuma available via the posting process this winter, and the bidding begins today.

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Of course, the Yankees still have the sour taste of Kei Igawa (and to a lesser extent Hideki Irabu) in their mouths (and on their payroll, unfortunately), but it would be foolish to eliminate an entire demographic of talent just because of one horrendous mistake. They’ve been scouting Yu Darvish rather heavily over the last two years, so we know they’re not afraid of acquiring another Japanese pitcher. They just have to make sure it’s the right Japanese pitcher.

I remember watching 29-year-old Iwakuma (30 in April) pitch twice in the 2009 WBC (including in the Championship series) and being impressed but not blown away. Subjectively speaking, he didn’t have blow-you-away kind of stuff but threw lots of strikes and mixed his pitches well, similar to what Colby Lewis has been doing with great success this postseason. Let’s not go off my shoddy memory though, here’s a scouting report courtesy of Baseball America

… Iwakuma has had some health concerns, as he missed most of the 2006 season with a shoulder injury, and he struggled in 2007 as well. But he returned to full health in 2008, as he went 21-4, 1.87 to lead the Pacific League in ERA and wins to earn the league’s MVP award.

Iwakuma doesn’t light up a radar gun, as his fastball sits around 89-90 mph and tops out at 93, but he pairs it with a nasty split-finger fastball that dives at the plate and a solid-to-plus slider. As he showed throughout the World Baseball Classic, Iwakuma is extremely efficient. He carved up Cuba, needing only 66 pitches to work six innings.

[snip]

“He would step into any rotation in the majors right now; he might be the No. 1 for half the teams in the majors,” an American League scout said. “He’s very impressive across the board.”

Always love the anonymous scout quotes thrown in at the end. Anyway, the indispensable NPB Tracker shared some velocity data for one of Iwakuma’s recent starts, which confirms the above (a shuuto is basically a two-seamer). He’s thrown 571 total innings over the last three years (including 200+ in 2008 and 2010), so the injury concerns mentioned above appear to be a thing of the past. He’s posted a 6.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9 in those years, which is something like a 2.95 FIP using the MLB factors. Don’t take that to heart though, it’s just a ballpark number. Here’s a video, and you can see Iwakuma has a traditional Asian delivery, with the hesitation and everything.

Unlike Darvish, it’s not a package that screams frontline starter, but rather something more along the lines of a mid-rotation guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The key to any deal would be keeping it short, because for whatever reason Japanese starting pitchers seem to hit a bit of a wall after their first two seasons in MLB (see right). Perhaps it has to do with the different schedule; they pitch once a week in Japan, the same day every week, rather than a set five man rotation. Maybe it takes two or three years before the added workload catches up to them. Maybe MLB hitters eventually adjust, who knows. Either way, a four- or five-year deal should be avoided. Two or three is the way to go, if that.

Given his low strikeout tendencies, I don’t believe the Yankees should make a serious push for Iwakuma in the next few weeks. Chances are his strikeout, walk, and homerun rates will suffer during the transition to MLB, and the strikeout rate might not be good enough to make up the difference. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical about Iwakuma’s ability to succeed pitching in the AL East with a hitter friendly home ballpark.

That said, I don’t see any harm with submitting an $8-10M bid (or whatever amount they’re comfortable with, really) just to see what happens. Rakuten is hoping to get a $16M bid according to the link above, so I’m talking about basically half of what’s expected. The Rays landed Akinori Iwamura when they submitted a $4.5M bid with no expectations in 2006, and they ended up receiving 6.1 fWAR out of him for a total of $12M from 2007-2009, a great bargain. The Yanks should take a chance to see if Iwakuma falls into their laps at a below market rate, but they shouldn’t go all-out to pursue him.

Yanks, Kevin Long agree to three year deal

Via George King, the Yankees and hitting coach Kevin Long have agreed to a new three-year contract. Terms of the deal are unknown, though Long’s previous contract paid him about $400,000 annually, and King says he’ll get a raise. He’s served as the Yankees’ hitting coach since 2007, and by all counts he’s done a marvelous job. The players all love him and give him credit for helping them, and there has been some tangible evidence of his magic, namely Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher.

The contracts of Rob Thomson, Mick Kelleher, Tony Pena, and Mike Harkey all expired yesterday, though they’re expected to remain with the club.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 1st, 2010

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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A former home team on the brink of a championship

The days of baseball are quickly drawing to a close. An hour ago, I flipped my calendar to November, and forty minutes before that, Brian Wilson completed what Madison Bumgarner to bring the San Francisco Giants one win away from their first World Series since 1954 when they were New York’s third team.

As New York City baseball history goes, the Giants seem to be the forgotten team. The Brooklyn Dodgers are the lovable losers of yesteryear whose departure left a Walter O’Malley- or Robert Moses-sized hole in the heart of the Borough of Kings. The Mets are the scrappy upstarts. The Yankees reign supreme.

But the Giants — 75-year veterans of Manhattan — are an afterthought. No one waxes nostalgic at the catches made by Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds, the five World Series titles they took home, their quirky ballpark on the bluff across the river from Yankee Stadium. Three thousand miles and 43 seasons removed from their last year in New York, the Giants could win the World Series today for the first time since New York.

When the Giants left town, the final game was treated like a celebratory funeral. Milton Bracker of The Times wrote about how fans stormed the field, taking anything they could from the Polo Grounds. “The mass pursuit,” he said, “was touched off by affection, excitement, nostalgia, curiosity and annoyance at the fact the team next year will represent San Francisco.”

The Giants came to New York by way of Troy in 1883 when the upstate team folded. The National League moved the franchise to New York and called it the Gothams for a few years. By the end of the 1880s, the team had inherited the Giants moniker and were a powerhouse of the early 1900s. By the time the team left for the windier pastures of San Francisco, fans were calling for the head of the owner and for the adulation of Willie Mays. “Stay, team, stay,” said the banner in the outfield, but it was too little, too late.

Of course, attendance — and a new ballpark — were the driving factors behind the Giants’ departure. They drew just a million fans a year over the last few seasons of their stay in the Polo Grounds. New York would not grant them a new stadium, and with Minneapolis and San Francisco vying for a club, the team’s days in the Big Apple were numbered. In fact, the Giants announced their departure from New York a week before the Dodgers did, and while O’Malley and Moses engaged in a ballpark fight until the bitter end, Horace Stoneham just picked up his team and left.

Today, Giants fans still live in New York. In 2008, Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing outed himself as one on the Banter, and more recently, Corey Kilgannon tracked down some old-time Giants fans who couldn’t watch the game due to the FOX/Cablevision dispute. “A lot of us never stopped rooting for the Giants after they moved, and the loyalty has been passed down to younger generations,” 81-year-old Bill Kent, a former Polo Grounds worker and current head of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society said. “So the Giants have a big fan base in New York, but you never hear about us.”

Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps Wednesday, the Giants will grab that elusive sixth World Series title. They’ve been waiting for 56 years and two coasts to win it, and most New Yorkers won’t blink. Perhaps we should though as a team that once called our fair city home will bring a trophy to its West Coast environs years after packing up the cats and shipping west.