A lineup debate that doesn’t need to be

It’s quiet in Tampa these days, almost too quiet. So let’s stir up some trouble.

Trouble arrived today in the form of rumblings about the lineup. As Mark Feinsand reported, “some inside the organization” would like to see Brett Gardner leadoff while the Yanks’ manager continues to assert that Derek Jeter will hold down the lineup’s top slot. “The lineup is best with Gardner leading off,” one anonymous source said to the News. “Don’t be surprised if it winds up that way.”

If this discussion sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just a month ago, I took a look at this issue and concluded that Gardner would probably be the better leadoff option. I wrote:

All of that is to say that the Yanks have two seemingly viable leadoff options. We can’t right now conclusively say that Brett Gardner is a better choice to bat first than Jeter. He’s not going to maintain a .600 OBP in the first inning over the course of 140 games, but his willingness to take a walk and his ability to work the count and make contact leads to good things. Jeter, on the other hand, is the long-time vet who hasn’t yet hit himself out of the spot in the lineup. If he struggles again this year, though, the Yanks have another leadoff hitter on deck.

But now that the organization is forcing the issue, should it matter who leads off? As with most things baseball related, the answer is both yes and no. First, as David Pinto noted, Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot is the ideal set-up for the Yanks’ lineup. Inserting the Yanks’ Marcel projections into his Lineup Analysis Tool, he finds that Gardner should lead off in 19 of 20 of the Yanks’ top lineups.

Yet there’s a catch, Pinto writes: “This team is blessed, however, with a very balanced lineup, so the difference between the best and worst Yankees lineups is just 0.27 runs per game, or 44 runs over a whole year. The default lineup I used, with Jeter first and Gardner ninth, comes in at just 0.045 runs short of the best, seven runs over a whole season. The worst projected OBP on the starting Yankees belongs to Curtis Granderson at .329. The AL average in 2010 came in at .327.”

The Lineup Analysis Tool doesn’t considering Jeter’s tendencies to hit into double plays or the role Brett Gardner’s stolen bases would play atop the lineup, but Pinto’s point remains: “When you have that much talent in the lineup, it really doesn’t matter where you bat the players. This team is going to score runs.”

Ultimately, Jeter’s age-related decline might force the issue. He won’t lead off forever, and the Yankees will have to move him down in the lineup. But for now, in early March without seeing Jeter earn sustained ABs against Major League pitching, he can be the once and future leadoff hitter. If he falters, Brett Gardner can easily slide into the one hole, and that’s a good problem to have.

The RAB Radio Show: March 7, 2011

It was A.J. Burnett‘s turn in the rotation today and he looked good. Joe and Mike discussed exactly what looked good. It really brings up a good question about how pitching coaches communicate with their pitchers.

Then it’s onto Eric Chavez. Barring injury he’s coming north with the team. We discuss how he’s looked and how he can help during the season.

Podcast run time 28:35

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Sport Science on Rivera’s cutter

That clip aired during yesterday’s extra-long edition of Baseball Tonight, and it breaks down the physics of Mariano Rivera‘s cut fastball. As it turns out, by the time the pitch starts to cut away from righties and in on lefties, it’s too late for the human eye to even pick up the movement. Sucks for the batters. Mariano was also on the set and discussed that clip as well as some other stuff, which you can watch here. Favorite quote: “Get it and throw it and let’s go home.”

Spring Training Game Thread: Split up

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

The Yankees are playing their first set of split squad games today, with the regular outfielders hanging around Tampa to face the Phillies this afternoon while the regular infielders hit the road to take on the Orioles tonight. That’ll be the second straight day with the road trip for guys like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, who you’d think have built up some seniority by now to avoid such Spring Training annoyances. Oh well, sucks for them.

Here’s today’s starting lineup…

Brett Gardner, LF
Russell Martin, C
Nick Swisher, RF
Curtis Granderson, CF
Jorge Posada, DH
Eric Chavez, 1B
Jorge Vazquez, 3B
Eduardo Nunez, SS
Ramiro Pena, 2B

Available Pitchers: A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano, Hector Noesi, Mark Prior, David Robertson, Luis Ayala, Romulo Sanchez, and Warner Madrigal.

Available Position Players: Mitch Abeita (C), Jesus Montero (C), Luke Murton (1B), Corban Joseph (2B), Jose Pirela (SS), Bradley Suttle (3B), Brandon Laird (LF), Ray Kruml (CF), Jordan Parraz (RF), Neil Medchill (OF), and Gustavo Molina (DH).

If you’re curious, here’s the lineup and reserves that’ll get their work in against the Orioles this evening. Today’s game is being broadcast live on YES, beginning at 1:05pm ET. Enjoy the game.

2011 Season Preview: Jorge Posada

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

As I mentioned two weeks ago, the Yankees will start the season with someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day for the first time since 1999. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup at all, he’ll just be there at a new position. The Yankees finally went ahead and made Posada their full-time designated hitter for the 2011 season, a move that’s been expected for a few years now.

Nagging injuries hampered Jorge throughout the 2010 season, though they were pretty much all fluky. A hit-by-pitch on the knee cost him a total of six days, a sprained ring finger suffered on a foul pitch cost him a day, and a fractured foot suffered on a foul ball cost him nearly three weeks. In between the injuries, Posada was his usual productive self. Yes, his batting average slipped to just .248, his lowest since 1999, but he still got on base 35.7% of the time and cleared a .200 ISO (.206) for the second straight year, fourth time in five years, and seventh time in the last nine years. Eighteen homers and production from both sides of the plate (.353 wOBA vs. RHP, .361 vs. LHP) is what he gave the team, and that’s pretty much all they ask of the guy.

Now 39, Posada is in the final year of his contract and what could very well be the final year of a career that will garner Hall of Fame consideration. He’ll be playing a new position  but will still be counted on for quality at-bats and production behind the heart of the order.

Best Case

Free from the rigors of catching, the best case scenario has Posada staying healthy enough to rack up 500+ plate appearances for the first time since 2007, when he was a 6.4 fWAR player. All that time at DH should help keep him fresh through all six months of the season, which would theoretically help his production. There’s certainly some merit to this, as Posada’s wOBA has traditionally peaked right around .400 in April and May before slowly slipping down to .370-ish in July, August and September since becoming a full-time catcher.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As an old player with old player skills and a surprisingly consistent career, why know exactly what Posada is capable of doing. We’ve seen him get on-base 40% of the time before. We’ve seen him club 20+ homers and slug north of .450. Expecting the .338/.426/.543 (.417 wOBA) monster from 2007 to return would be nothing short of foolish, but Jorge was a .285/.363/.522 (.378 wOBA) hitter as recently as 2009, and that approximates his best case offensive scenario. It’s better than his .275/.377/.479 (.369 wOBA) career average, and would qualify as Jorge’s third best offensive season since 2005.

The defensive upgrade behind the plate may end up being considerable, and the impact on the pitching staff could be as well. Yankees pitchers have traditionally performed worse with Posada behind the plate, but we just don’t have enough evidence to know how much of that is on that catcher. He’s not the guy throwing the pitch, after all. Either way, getting Jorge out of the catcher’s spot improves his offense and the team’s defense, a win-win. A designated hitter with a wOBA approaching .380 is better than a three-win player, a level of production Posada has cleared just once in the last three seasons.

Worst Case

Avoiding the abuse of the catching vocation is great, but adjusting to life as a designated hitter is easier said than done. Posada’s a career .223/.336/.358 hitter as a DH, which is not what any team wants from that position. He’s also well into his decline phase, and he could slip off the edge of the cliff at any moment. There’s not much to say about the worst case scenario for Posada; it has him clogging up the designated hitter spot with below-average offensive production, a .330 wOBA or worse. Jorge’s job is very simple. If he doesn’t hit, he’s hurting the team.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

Catchers usually turn into pumpkins around age 33 or 34, but Posada has managed to defy age for half-a-decade now. American League DH’s (taking out NL during interleague play) hit .252/.332/.426 last season, so simply repeating last year’s effort will give the Yankees an above-average player at that spot. Any improvement would be gravy, though at his age I’m not expecting any. A .350 wOBA would be better than what the Yankees got out of that spot in three of the last four years (2009 being the lone exception), so Posada’s break-even point isn’t exactly sky high as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t worry so much about his career production as a DH because we’re talking about just 351 plate appearances spread across a 14-year career. That represents less than 5.2% of his career plate appearances, and in fact, Jorge’s started more than ten games at DH in a single season just twice. Those 351 plate appearances hold very little predictive value.

Posada’s career is winding down, but the Yankees’ offense is in as good of a position to absorb his total collapse as ever. I don’t him to fall apart this year, but it’s a very real possibility. It wouldn’t sink the team, but it would certainly be sad to see such a great player crawl to the finish.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 7th, 2011

Record Last Week: 2-4-1 (30 RS, 37 RA)
Spring Training Record: 3-5-1 (31 RS, 45 RA)
Schedule This Week: vs. Phillies (Mon. on YES, split squad), @ Orioles (Mon., split squad), @ Braves (Tues. on  YES/MLBN), vs. Pirates (Weds.), @ Phillies (Thurs.), vs. Braves (Fri. on YES/MLBN, split squad), @ Blue Jays (Fri., split squad), @ Nationals (Sat. on MLBN), vs. Twins (Sun. on YES)

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