2012 Season Preview: Regression Risks

(Nick Laham/Getty)

Anytime a team wins 97 games, a lot has to go right. Some young players need to take steps forward and do more than expected, some established players have to have career years, and some other players must surprise and come out of nowhere with solid performances. It takes a total team effort to win that many games, from the nine-figure number one starter to the last guy on the bench clinging to his roster spot by the skin of his teeth.

The Yankees had a number of players provide better than expected production last year, none moreso than Bartolo Colon. He returned to MLB after the year-long hiatus and a half-decade of injury trouble to throw 164.1 innings of better than average pitching in the AL East at age 38. It was the definition of a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, not all of those surprise performances are sustainable. Some of those guys might take a step backwards in 2012.

Freddy Garcia
The Yankees got lucky with Sweaty Freddy last year, at least in the sense that he held up all season without his surgically repaired shoulder giving out. He was a pretty extreme fly ball guy (just 36.4% grounders) who didn’t give up many homers (0.98 HR/9 and 8.2 HR/FB%) because he has a serious knack for weak contract. Hitters pop-up his slop at a pretty high rate — 11.9% infield fly ball rate with a 10.7% career rate — which helps keep the ball in the park.

Garcia is a major outlier in terms of his pitching style, and he doesn’t really fit under the umbrella of modern pitcher analysis. Mark Buehrle is the same way. The concern with Freddy going forward is the decreased usage of his changeup (19.9% in 2011 after 34.1% in 2010), which allowed left-handed batters to hit him harder (116 sOPS+) than they did the year before (108). If he’s unable to hold down right-handers again (101 sOPS+ in 2011 after 130 in 2010), he could be in for a whole world of hurt. Garcia could stand to use the changeup a little more next season to keep lefties at bay.

(REUTERS/Pichi Chuang)

Curtis Granderson
Granderson is a very unique case. His performance improved overnight back in August 2010 (almost literally), but we have tangible evidence explaining his newfound success. Grandy overhauled his stance and swing mechanics – specifically switching to a two-handed follow through for better bat control — with hitting coach Kevin Long’s help, allowing him to tap into his natural power and improve his performance against southpaws. We’ve seen 945 plate appearances of MVP caliber performance (including playoffs) since the overhaul, hardly a small sample.

It’s easy to write off Granderson’s power spike as a product of New Yankee Stadium, but that’s not the case. Since the overhaul he’s hit 30 homers with a .322 ISO at home and 25 homers with a .266 ISO on the road. The performance is better at home, but that’s still serious power on the road. The newfound pop jumped Granderson’s HR/FB ratio up over 20% (20.5% to be exact) for the first time in his career, which is rarefied air. Only eight hitters have sustained a 20%+ HR/FB ratio over the last five years (min. 2,000 PA), and they’re basically the eight best pure power hitters in baseball (Ryan Howard, Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena types). Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, and Miguel Cabrera do not make the cut.

Grandy ‘s power output isn’t something many hitters are able to repeat these days. Only six players have put together back-to-back 35+ homer seasons over the last five years, and only two of the six have been over the age of 30. That doesn’t mean Curtis won’t do it again, he certainly has a lot going for him (like Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch), but it’s not crazy to think he’ll be unable to repeat his 40+ homer effort again in 2012.

Ivan Nova
You can’t say enough good things about what Nova did for the Yankees last season, particularly upon his return from Triple-A. He improved his slider and started missing some bats, which will be important for him going forward. As with every young pitcher, Nova’s game could step a back next season just because he’s still figuring things out, but there is a very specific reason why it’s possible his performance will suffer in 2012. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say his performance is likely to suffer, not just possible.

The easy answer here is that his ERA (3.70) was lower than his FIP (4.01) and he’s doomed to regress, but that’s not necessarily the case. The concern is Nova’s performance with men on base, specifically with regards to the long ball. He faced 293 batters with men on base last year, and he allowed exactly zero homers. Not one. All 13 homers he allowed last summer were solo shots. His ground ball (54.1%) and strikeout (5.47 K/9 and 15.7 K%) rates were slightly higher with men on than with the bases empty (51.7 GB%, 5.22 K/9, and 12.7 K%), but not enough to explain the whole zero homers thing.

Avoiding homers is absolutely a skill, but avoiding homers specifically with no one on base is not. Pitchers tend to lose some effectiveness when pitching from the stretch — .318 wOBA against with men on but .313 with the bases empty — and Nova is no exception. Playing half his games in hitter friendly Yankee Stadium means he’ll inevitably allow some homers with men on base. Those multi-run dingers will do a number on the ol’ ERA, which is why his performance is likely to take a step back in 2012. At some point, someone will take him deep with ducks on the pond.

(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

David Robertson
Robertson was out of this world good last season, using a new cutter to generate ground balls (46.3%) in addition to his usual high strikeout ways (13.50 K/9 and 36.8 K%). He allowed just one homer all season (a solo shot to J.J. Hardy in late-August), stranded a whopping 89.8% of the baserunners he allowed, and struck out 14 of the 19 men he faced with the bases loaded. The Houdini nickname certainly isn’t misplaced.

With Robertson, there isn’t one specific thing you can point to that would lead you to believe his performance will take a step back next year. Maybe it’s his 2.3% HR/FB rate, that’s probably the most obvious. Really, it’s just a matter of him being so insanely good that he can’t maintain the pace. Only 19 qualified relievers have managed a sub-2.00 FIP season over the last ten years, and exactly two of them did it more than once: Eric Gagne (2002 & 2003) and Hong-Chih Kuo (2008 & 2010). Mariano Rivera is not one of the 19. At 4.73 BB/9, Robertson has the highest walk rate of the group, and not by a small margin. Last year’s Kenley Jansen is the only guy within one walk per nine of him. D-Rob’s really really good, but my gosh, it would be something if he was that good again.

Cory Wade
The Yankees got 39.2 strong innings out of Wade last season, grabbing him off the scrap heap when injuries started to thin out the relief corps. He limits walks (1.82 BB/9 and 5.1 BB%) and strikes out just enough guys (6.81 K/9 and 19.1 K%) to remain effective despite big time fly ball (just 38.7% grounders) and homerun (1.13 HR/9) tendencies. Like Nova though, Wade enjoyed a ton of success with men on base last season. Perhaps a little too much.

Only 8.8% of the men to who reached base against Wade came around to score a year ago, well below the league average rate (27.5%). You’d expect a fly ball guy to have a lower than normal BABIP, but a .222 BABIP with men on base is lower than even the most optimistic of expectations. Once Wade gets some more opportunities to pitch with men on base — he faced just 64 batters with men on in 2011 — his performance will come back to Earth and he’ll allow a few more runs, especially as someone prone to the long ball. Another near-2.00 ERA across a full year’s worth of appearances would be a total shocker. Thankfully, Wade has a minor league option left and the Yankees have a number of bullpen alternatives at their disposal.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 5th, 2012

Record Last Week: 2-0 (15 RS, 9 RA)
Spring Training Record: 2-0 (15 RS, 9 RA)
Opponents This Week: @ Phillies (Mon. on MLBN), @ Pirates (Tues.), vs. Rays (Weds. on YES/MLBN), @ Blue Jays (Thurs.), vs. Braves (Fri. on YES/MLBN), @ Braves (Sat.) vs. Twins (one game, Mon.), vs. Rays (four games, Tues. to Thurs., two on Weds.), vs. Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.), @ Twins (Sun. on MLBN, split squad), vs. Twins (Sun. on YES, split squad)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Open Thread: 3/4 Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Yankees beat the Phillies again today, this time by the score of 7-4. Alex Rodriguez was the star of the day, going 3-for-3 with a homer to right-center off Roy Halladay (video) on the first pitch he saw. He also singled to left and doubled into the left field corner. D.J. Mitchell had a nice day on the mound with two scoreless innings, and Clay Rapada retired all three lefties he faced in his perfect inning (two strikeouts). If jersey numbers mean anything, he has a decent chance of making the team with #39. Mike O’Connor is wearing #63, Cesar Cabral #76. Here’s the box score, and here’s all the other news from Tampa…

  • Both Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano will throw live batting practice tomorrow. It’s the first time Mo will face hitters and second time for Soriano. [Chad Jennings]
  • Hiroki Kuroda threw a simulated game this morning in preparation for Wednesday’s start. Ivan Nova, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and David Phelps will all throw their normal side sessions tomorrow after appearing in yesterday’s game. Brad Meyers will throw off a mound of the first time as well; he hurt his shoulder lifting weights this offseason and is behind everyone else. [Jennings]
  • Mark Teixeira fouled a ball off his foot earlier this week and has been getting treatment. “No worries, no tests,” said Brian Cashman. Tex did play today and even made a nice jumping grab, so the foot can’t be that bad. [George King]

Here is your open thread for the night. The Nets are playing tonight, plus the Twins and Red Sox are on MLB Network. Talk about whatever you like here, enjoy.

On A-Rod’s new workout program with Dr. Clark

Kobe Bryant urged Alex Rodriguez to undergo an experimental procedure on his knee a few months ago, and now another NBA star is giving him training advice. Joel Sherman wrote about A-Rod‘s relationship with Dr. Mike Clark, who started working together after Grant Hill put the two in touch.

Clark, who is CEO of the National Academy of Sports Medicine and formerly the Phoenix Suns’ physical trainer, has a system of treating the body globally rather than focusing on specific parts. With Alex, his workouts have focused on his right big toe, left ankle, right knee, and right hip, which were causing imbalances in his swing and have led to injuries elsewhere in his body. Think of it like a pitcher with a leg issue who puts more stress on his arm. A-Rod is working with a member of Clark’s staff daily this spring after first adjusting his workouts earlier in the offseason. It’s a pretty interesting read, so check it out. It gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

ST Game Thread: Freddy’s Gonna Get Sweaty

Freddy does not approve of your stretching routine. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

If he had a chance to do it all over again, chances are Freddy Garcia would not have re-signed with the Yankees so early in the offseason. He pitched well last year and certainly earned his raise, but the Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda acquisitions have pushed him out of the rotation and into a (rigged) competition for the fifth starter’s spot. Today is Sweaty Freddy’s first chance to audition for the job he probably has no chance to win. Here’s the lineup, or at least the guys that will play the first few innings…

SS Derek Jeter
2B Robinson Cano
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
LF Andruw Jones
C Frankie Cervelli
RF Chris Dickerson
CF Dewayne Wise
DH Justin Maxwell

RHP Freddy Garcia

Available Pitchers: RHP D.J. Mitchell, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Cory Wade, LHP Clay Rapada, and RHP Kevin Whelan are all scheduled to pitch. RHP Chase Whitley, LHP Juan Cedeno, RHP Adam Miller, RHP Ryan Pope, and RHP Dan Burawa are available if needed.

Available Position Players: C J.R. Murphy, 1B Jose Gil, 2B David Adams, SS Doug Bernier, 3B Corban Joseph, LF Colin Curtis, CF Melky Mesa, and RF Zoilo Almonte will replace the starters. CoJo hasn’t played third in the regular season since 2010 and just six times since 2009.

Today’s game begins at 1:05pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy.

Mailbag & Poll: Trading A Core Player

(AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Daniel asks: With an eye on the 2014 budget, do you think the Yankees would consider trading a core player (Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson) for a haul of inexpensive, but talented players?

I’m sure they would consider it — it’s Brian Cashman‘s job to consider anything that could potentially improve the team — but it would really, really surprise me if they did something big like that. The Yankees usually aren’t sellers; only when they have an older, expensive player they don’t want or need anymore (A.J. Burnett, Gary Sheffield). I think they would sooner try to win with both guys the next two years and let one of them walk as a free agent for payroll reasons after 2013 than trade one of them after 2012 just to make sure they get some kind of return that fits into the future budget. The Yankees are still all about winning.

One thing to keep in mind about Cano and Granderson is that they are both scheduled to become free agents after 2013 (assuming their options are picked up next winter, which they will be) and won’t bring a huge return in a trade. The Mark Teixeira trade (from the Rangers to Braves) is the gold standard in situations like this, but that’s a once in a lifetime thing. Franchise-altering hauls like that are very rare, and if someone wanted to offer the Yankees a similar package for Granderson (I’m sure they’re going to re-sign Cano), then by all means explore the possibility. I just can’t see them hooking up with another contender (since that would be the kind of team looking to add that kind of player) for a trade of that magnitude.

Looking beyond Teixeira, other star-caliber position players traded one season prior to free agency in recent years includes Adrian Gonzalez, Dan Uggla, Jason Bay, and Matt Holliday. All four deals returned useful players (to varying degrees), but Carlos Gonzalez (from Athletics to Rockies for Holliday) is the only guy that qualifies as an above average big leaguer. There’s a lot of risk in making a trade like that, especially for a perennial contender like the Yankees. Keeping Granderson (and Cano) around and trying to win with him in 2013 makes more sense than hoping to luck into a Teixeira-type haul. Anyway, let’s poll…

What would you rather see the Yankees do?
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Open Thread: 3/3 Camp Notes

Jorge Vazquez doubled off Dontrelle Willis. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Yankees beat the Phillies 8-5 in the their first official Grapefruit League game this afternoon. Cole Garner (2-for-2 with a bomb to left and a big league bat flip) is the early favorite for the Jon Weber Memorial He Should Make The Team! Award, and Curtis Granderson (2-for-2 with a double to right-center and a homer to left) did some nice things as well. It was really windy in Clearwater, everything hit in the air was an adventure.

Ivan Nova sure looked like a pitcher in his first Spring Training outing, leaving a lot of breaking balls up in the zone. I did see one really nice changeup for a swing-and-miss though. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances were all over the place, but I thought David Phelps looked surprisingly good for early-March. He was probably the most impressive pitcher of the day, for either team. Eduardo Nunez (booted a grounder), Jayson Nix (airmailed a throw), and Nova (threw away a pickoff throw) all made errors early on. Here’s the box score, and here’s the non-game news from Tampa…

  • Phil Hughes and some minor leaguers/non-roster invitees threw live batting practice today while Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia threw in the bullpen. Pineda will start Monday’s game while Hughes and Sabathia are scheduled to pitch on Tuesday. All the position players didn’t make the trip to Clearwater hit at the home base. [Chad Jennings]
  • Hiroki Kuroda will throw a simulated game tomorrow with his first Spring Training start scheduled for Wednesday. Adam Warren, Graham Stoneburner, and Brett Marshall will all throw bullpens tomorrow after pitching against the University of South Florida yesterday. [also Jennings]
  • Pretty neat story from Tim Brown about Alex Rodriguez, who gave the team a bit of a motivational speech prior to yesterday’s game against USF.

Here’s tonight’s open thread. None of the hockey or basketball locals are playing tonight, but MLB Network is showing a replay of this afternoon’s Yankees-Phillies game. You folks know what to do by now, so have it.