Dealing with Jeter at the top of the lineup

(From Flickr user jcanroot via Creative Commons license.)

When Derek Jeter came off the DL before yesterday’s game, the Yankees got more than just the player. They got all of the drama that comes along with him. That’s not exactly normal for Jeter. While the spotlight has always moved with him, but it has cast him in mostly a positive light. The stories about Jeter this year have been something less than that. While there are still positive vibes, mostly in regards to his 3,000 hit milestone, he and the team have faced an onslaught of criticism over his place in the lineup (and in some, more frivolous, cases, his role as a starter). Yet all this nitpicking might be just that.

A common refrain from stat-minded fans goes something like this: The difference between the optimal and the least efficient batting orders amounts to about a win during the course of a full season. It still means something on a game-to-game basis, but as with most averages it evens out when you collect a large enough sample. It’s not ideal, having guys who don’t get on base often sandwiched with guys who do, but good teams can overcome that in the long run.

It is clear to everyone, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, that Brett Gardner is a better fit in the leadoff spot than Jeter. Even after Gardner slumped a bit in the past week his on-base is 30 points higher than Jeter’s. The ZiPS rest of season projections give Gardner the advantage as well. Given his speed and prowess on the base paths, it’s a great advantage to have him leading off. But is it worth the drama to move Jeter down — probably to eighth — while Gardner slides into the lead off spot?

Against lefties this shouldn’t even be a question. Even as his production has declined in the past few years Jeter has continued to hit lefties. His wRC (weighted runs created, based on wOBA) against lefties from 2010 through the present is 51.0, which trails only Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Nick Swisher — that is, hitters who have clearly outproduced him on the whole during that span. His slash stats, .315/.396/.462, indicate that he is still well suited to the leadoff role when a lefty is on the mound. Since they face a lefty starter roughly a quarter of the time*, we’re then dealing with three quarters of the remaining games when analyzing Jeter’s role atop the order.

*Baseball Reference has the exact number on its team splits page, but all 2011 splits pages are blank at the time of writing, so I am SOL on the exact number.

Let’s see how this stacks up when we compare the number of times both Gardner and Jeter project to reach base against righties the rest of the way. To get an approximation of OBP, I’ll use each player’s numbers against righties from the last two seasons. I’d like to go back to 2009 as well, but it’s clear that both Gardner and Jeter have changed dramatically as players since then. It would make for a larger sample, but i don’t think it would be fair to the analysis.

Jeter has batted 718 times against right-handed pitching in the last two years and has reached base safely 220 times, good for a .307 OBP. Gardner has hit 631 times against righties and has reached base 233 times, good for a .373 OBP. If we take these rates and put them into the context of 263 PA* we get Jeter on base 81 times and Gardner on base 98 times. The difference of 17 times on base can be huge, since it means 17 more opportunities for Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and even Robinson Cano to drive in runners. But it’s also 17 runners in the span of 59 games, or one runner every 3.5 games. Is one base runner every 3.5 games worth demoting Jeter?

*The leadoff man will get approximately 350 PA the rest of the way, and so figuring a quarter of them will come against lefties, that leaves 263 against righties.

Let’s take this a step further, even, and plug in everyone’s 2010-2011 numbers against righties into Dave Pinto’s lineup analysis tool. With Jeter at leadoff and Gardner ninth the Yankees would score 5.434 runs per game. With a completely optimized lineup they’d score 5.524 runs per game, and with a lineup that most closely resembles the Gardner first, Jeter eighth or ninth order they’d score 5.518 runs per game. But let’s just take the optimized one. The lineup with Jeter atop against righties would score 321 runs in the 59 (theoretical) remaining games against right-handed starters, and the Gardner-led lineup would score 326 runs. The difference, then, doesn’t seem very large.

There are things that the lineup analysis tool cannot comprehend, such as quality of at-bats. In that department, Gardner is clearly the favorable option. Overall Gardner is clearly the best person to beat leadoff against righties; almost all of the evidence points to that fact. But just as there are factors that go beyond the lineup analysis tool, there are factors that go beyond lineup optimization. There are egos to handle, and a wrong move can have further effects. We can’t measure those, and so we can’t pinpoint their effects on the team. But they do exist, so the least we can do is acknowledge them before moving on.

While Brett Garndner is the preferred option atop the lineup against right-handed pitching, the difference between he and Jeter the rest of the season might not be so great. The Yankees will certainly get more opportunities, but with the averages point to far fewer than we might expect. The Yankees will have the advantage of an additional base runner every 3.5 games, and will score on average six more runs during the rest of the season against RHP, but is that worth the drama of moving Jeter? For every move, after all, there are unforseen consequences, and I’m not sure it’s worth the risk right now. It’s the preferred and optimal move, but it’s understandable why the Yankees wouldn’t do it.

The Obligatory Juan Rivera Post

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since Juan Rivera made his big league debut with the Yankees, when he earned a September call-up in 2001. Baseball America considered him one of the game’s top 100 best prospects before the 2002 and 2003 seasons, and Rivera hit a respectable .262/.302/.427 with eight homers and one golf cart-related injury in 280 plate appearances for the Yankees before being traded to the Expos as part of the Javy Vazquez package.

Rivera bounced from the Expos to the Angels to the Blue Jays in the eight years since the trade, hitting .278/.329/.445 (105 OPS+) during that time. The Blue Jays designated the now 33-year-old for assignment over the weekend, so let’s look to see if he could potentially fill a need for the Yankees…

The Pros

  • Rivera’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to hit left-handed pitching. He tagged southpaws for a .327/.400/.509 batting line in just 65 plate appearances for Toronto this year, but from 2008-2010 he hit .282/.334/.515 in over 400 plate appearances against lefties.
  • Rivera has some serious contact skills, swinging and missing just 7.4% of the time in his career with a 12.9% strikeout rate. Even his 2011 marks of 8.4% and 16.6%, respectively, are better than league average despite been career worsts (min. 200 PA). He’s walked more than he’s struck out against lefties this year (eight to six), and from 2008-2010 it’s 30 walks to 34 strikeouts. Anything remotely close to 1:1 is spectacular.
  • All of the advanced metrics (UZR, DRS, Total Zone) consider his defense to be about average (but no better) in the outfield corners. That’s a win when you consider what his role would be. He’s also dabbled at first base throughout the years.

The Cons

  • Rivera should be considered nothing more than a platoon player. He’s hit just .219/.276/.318 against righties this year (210 PA) and .246/304/.403 last year (293 PA). Last season’s performance isn’t terrible, but he’s clearly at his best when facing pitchers of the opposite hand.
  • He’s not a patient hitter, walking in just 6.7% of his career plate appearances and seeing only 3.51 pitches per plate appearances. It’s worth noting that his 8.0% walk rate this year is a career best.
  • Rivera does not project as a Type-A or B free agent at the moment, and he’s far enough from the cutoff that he probably can’t play his way into compensation pick territory in the second half.

With a $5.25M salary this season, it’s pretty safe to say that Rivera will clear waivers. The Blue Jays figure to find a decent number of teams interested in acquiring him via trade if they’re willing to get some of that money, though in recent years we’ve seen GM Alex Anthopoulos be pretty hesitant to trade within the division. Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a big issue for a spare part like Rivera.

Andruw Jones is hitting .234/.310/.453 in 71 plate appearances against lefties this year, and his numbers over the last few seasons (.219/.352/.428 vs. LHP from 2008-2010) suggest that Rivera is the better platoon option at the plate. Andruw’s not the defender he once was, but he’s probably still better than Rivera, even if it’s just marginally. His $2M salary is not going away, but I think there are legitimate reasons to eat the rest of that salary and bring Rivera aboard if he winds up in the open market. I wouldn’t give up anything of value to acquire him in a trade, nor would I absorb that salary on waivers, but as a free agent for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum? Then go for it. I’ll be surprised if he makes it that far though.

Yanks fall to Indians in Jeter’s return

Ball game.

Hope you had a great Fourth of July, and to everyone outside of the U.S. … I hope you had a wonderful Monday. Let’s recap…

  • That foul ball by Lonnie Chisenhall in the seventh absolutely has to be caught, but it wasn’t. It’s the outfielder’s ball because he’s coming in on it, but for whatever reason (lack of communication?) it bounced between Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner. That should have been the third out.
  • I also don’t think A.J. Burnett should have faced Austin Kearns that inning because a) he hit two balls to the warning track earlier in the game and was obviously seeing the ball well out of his hand, and b) Burnett hung some curves to the previous batter and got away with them. He looked like he was tired as his pitch count climbed north of 110. You know what though? Chisenhall, Shelley Duncan, and Kearns came into the game with .300, .270, and .287 OBP’s, respectively. Just one of those guys needed to make an out, but instead four runs scored.
  • Other than that inning, Burnett was actually pretty good. Just two walks and two hits through the first six innings with five strikeouts. It looked like one of those classic games when A.J. pitched well and the offense wouldn’t bother to score.
  • Josh Tomlin managed to take a no-hitter into the seventh (!!!), but Mark Teixeira broke it up with a single back up the middle. Robinson Cano followed that up with an infield hit, and Nick Swisher drove in both of them with an opposite field gapper. Curtis Granderson hit his 23rd homer in the eighth, a solo shot.
  • Derek Jeter reached on an error in his first game back and hit one ball out of the infield in four at-bats, pretty much par for the course.
  • Cory Wade gave up his first run(s) with the Yankee, an opposite field two-run homer to Carlos Santana that gave the Indians some insurance runs in the eighth. Wasn’t even a bad pitch, a curveball on the outer half that Santana muscled out.
  • Here’s the box score and the depressing WPA graph.

CC Sabathia will try to stop the two-game losing streak when he takes the mound in his old stomping grounds on Tuesday night. Carlos Carrasco will go for the Tribe. That’s a normal 7:05pm ET start, and RAB Tickets can get you there on the cheap.

Staten Island’s win streak comes to an end

Jorge Vazquez was activated off the disabled list, he had apparently been dealing with some left shoulder soreness. Jesus Montero was a late scratch tonight because of tightness in his lower back/side. Also, Fernando Hernandez was released, which is entirely unsurprising.

Triple-A Scranton (5-3 win over Lehigh Valley)
Greg Golson, CF: 3 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 K – 12 for his last 37 (.324)
Mike Lamb, 3B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI – taken out in the ninth for defense
Jordan Parraz, RF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K
Terry Tiffee, 1B: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K
Jorge Vazquez, DH: 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 K, 1 HBP
Brandon Laird, LF-3B: 2 for 4 – got shifted around late in the game
Gus Molina, C: 0 for 4, 1 K
Luis Nunez, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 R
Doug Bernier, SS: 4 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B – seven for his last ten with three doubles … gets to keep the job a little longer with Ramiro Pena not coming down
Shaeffer Hall, LHP: 6.1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 7-6 GB/FB – 54 of 81 pitches were strikes (66.7%)
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 11 of 20 pitches were caught
Logan Kensing, RHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 11 of 18 pitches were strikes (61.1%)

[Read more…]

Game 83: Derek’s Back

Here’s the starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

A.J. Burnett. SP

The game starts at 6:35pm ET and can be seen on YES locally or MLB Network nationally. Enjoy, and have a happy and safe Fourth of July.

Roster News: Chris Dickerson has been optioned to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the roster for Jeter. I guess Eduardo Nunez‘s hamstring is still acting up and want to keep Ramiro Pena around as a spare infielder.

(h/t to Anthony for the link to the video)

Cano will participate in Homerun Derby

Via Mark Feinsand, Robinson Cano has accepted an invitation to participate in the Homerun Derby next week. AL captain David Ortiz asked him to join after Mark Teixeira declined the invitation to spend the break with his family. Adrian Gonzalez and Jose Bautista will also take their hacks. Cano was originally named to the Derby last year, but withdrew because of a minor back injury that may or may not have been real.