The calming influence of Brian Cashman

The past few months have not been the most kind to Brian Cashman. After watching the Yanks get dispatched in the ALCS by the Rangers, he was powerless to stop his his prime off-season target from heading back to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he took gruff from the unscrupulous among us for his charity work which included scaling a building in December and tending bar in Midtown for three hours last week and heat for putting together a “Best of the Early 2000s” slate of back-end rotation candidates.

Meanwhile, as Andy Pettitte stews — and in a certain sense, holds the short-term fate of a few key organizational cogs in his hands — Cashman has had to defend himself from New York columnists as well. Bill Madden’s baseless speculation that Cashman wanted to test his hand at team-building with a budget earned a sharp rebuke from the Yanks’ GM who denied the entire story.

Lately, then, the Yankees owners have taken to publicly defending the team official often viewed as the ultimate scapegoat in New York. Anything that goes wrong is Cashman’s fault, and anything that goes right is a result of the Yanks’ fiscal might.

A few hours ago, MLB.com’s Peter Gammons issued a different take on Cashman and his role with the Yanks. As Gammons sees it, Cashman isn’t a divisive figure in the club’s hierarchy. Rather, he is the calming influence amidst a Front Office. He writes:

Hal is private, and we all think he is tough. He also knows what his father once told me, that, in the end, Brian will do what’s in the Yankees’ best interest, not just his own. Cashman proved it in 2005 when his contract was up and, in the best long-term interest of the organization, would not do a back-page cosmetic deal in the pennant race. He proved it again in 2006 when the Yankees lost in the playoffs to the Tigers, when George Steinbrenner and Levine wanted to fire Joe Torre and were well down the line toward hiring Lou Piniella, and Cashman stood his ground, talked his bosses off the ledge and saved Torre’s job…

When Hal Steinbrenner admitted to Sherman that he orchestrated part of Cashman’s response in the Jeter negotiations, it was evident that even with Levine’s occasional imitation of the organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there is a sense of stability around the Yankees that will remain in place as long as Cashman is in charge of the baseball operations.

It is also very clear that if Cashman were to leave, Hal Steinbrenner can see the rush for power that would take place below him, which, with the contracts for some of their older players outstanding, might send the Yankees into the kind of chaos Cashman has been able to avoid. Had Torre been fired in 2006, would the Yankees have won a World Series championship three years later? My point, precisely.

As the Hot Stove League has worn on, Cashman has opened his mouth more frequently than ever before this year. Some of that is in response to his critics, and some of his comments have been about the need to keep the organization focused on its player development path. It makes reporters used to silence from the normally tight-lipped GM uncomfortable, but it’s not a sign of his weariness of being a Yankee. After all, it’s the only organization and work place he has ever known.

I don’t think Brian Cashman is the best GM out there. I’ve been critical of his bench-building skills, and I find that he doesn’t use the Yanks’ financial might to improve the team around the edges. The signings of Andruw Jones and, to a lesser extent, Russell Martin could change that this year, and the bullpen certainly won’t suffer from having Rafael Soriano around. Right now, though, Cashman’s the best guy for the job, and as long as he wants to stay, I believe Hal Steinbrenner will keep him.

Open Thread: Mike Lowell

(Photo Credit: SportsMemorabilia.com)

If you blinked, there’s a chance you missed Mike Lowell’s career as a Yankee. A 20th round draft pick in 1995, Lowell received a grand total of 15 plate appearances in pinstripes, picking up four singles in 1998. With Scott Brosius coming off a .300/.371/.472 season, the Yankees traded a then 24-year-old Lowell to the Marlins for three young pitchers: Todd Noel, Ed Yarnall, and Mark Johnson. Yarnall had been ranked as the 60th best prospect in the game by Baseball America before the 1998 season, and he was the only one to ever make an appearance in the Bronx (20 IP, 5.40 ERA). He was later traded to the Reds for Denny Neagle while Noel never made it out of A-ball and Johnson went to the Tigers in the 1999 Rule 5 Draft.

Lowell, meanwhile, went on to have a long and productive career first with the Marlins and then with the Red Sox. He doubled off Andy Pettitte in Game Six of the 2003 World Series, and during his career he hit .314/.377/.506 with a dozen homers in just over 300 plate appearances against the team that originally drafted him. Brian Cashman later said he wishes he could have a do-over on the Lowell trade, a trade that took place 12 years ago today. Pitching prospects, eh? They’ll break your heart.

Anyways, here is the open thread for the evening. The Devils, Isles, and Rangers are all back in action now that the All Star break is over, so hooray for that. Talk about whatever your heart desires.

KLaw’s Top Impact Prospects for 2011

Keith Law posted his list of the top 20 impact prospects for the 2011 season today (Insider req’d), with Freddie Freeman, Jeremy Hellickson, and Kyle Drabek leading the way. Jesus Montero is the final name on the list simply because of the uncertainty about how much he’ll play this season. “I have little doubt that he’ll hit if he plays,” said KLaw, “but don’t have a good sense of when he’ll play — or if he’ll end up traded for a starting pitcher.” Fair assessment, I don’t think anyone, not even the Yankees, has a concrete idea of how much Montero will play for the big league team this summer. Remember, it’s not a top prospect list, just a list of which guys will have the most impact at the Major League level in 2011.

As an added bonus, Dan Szymborski ran down his ZiPS projections for all 20 players on the list (also Insider), and he came up with (get this) .273/.334/.503 with 28 homers for Montero next season. Forget Rookie of the Year, if he does that while playing behind the plate regularly, he’s an MVP candidate.

The RAB Radio Show: February 1, 2011

Who would’ve thought that signing Freddy Garcia would spur endless conversation? The Yankees picked up the veteran right-hander on a minor league deal yesterday, but unless something catastrophic happens in camp he’ll break in with the team as the No. 4 or 5 starter. There are worse things. Mike and I dive into Garcia’s stuff.

Then we get into some Jesus Montero projections, and somehow it turns into our upbringings as Yankees fans. You can’t predict the RAB Radio Show. You just can’t.

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Freddy Garcia’s changeup is something else

PEEKABOO! (Paul Sancya/AP)

As Mike and Ben noted last night, nothing particularly stands out about Freddy Garcia’s 2010 campaign. Everything basically screams slightly below average. But he still managed a 94 ERA+ in 157 innings, which is almost identical to the best season of Sergio Mitre‘s career. It’s not hard to envision Garcia breaking camp in the Yanks rotation, so let’s take a closer look at the one weapon that has allowed him to remain average-ish, even after shoulder surgery cost him parts of three seasons.

As is the case with many right-handed starting pitchers, Garcia faced more lefties than he did righties in 2010. That can be trouble for a soft-tosser. Yet Garcia realized better results against lefties than he did against righties. These results included a slightly higher strikeout rate, a lower home run rate, and a lower FIP and xFIP. He got lefties to hit more ground balls and fewer line drives. Judging from the data we have available, it appears that he accomplished this with a pretty nasty changeup.

Against lefties Garcia threw his changeup 559 times, or 42.9 percent of all his pitches. His fastball wasn’t used nearly as often, just 344 times, or 26.4 percent. There appears to be good reason for this. Garcia generated very few swings and misses with the fastball, just 7.8 percent, which makes it by far his most hittable pitch for lefties. He also allows lefties to hit it in the air more often than his other pitches. His changeup, on the other hand, generates far more swings and misses, 22.1 percent, and he keeps the ball on the ground almost half the time. Swings and misses plus ground balls is an excellent combination.

Here’s where Garcia placed his changeup in 2010 against lefties:

This breakdown makes complete sense once we look at the results, which we can find at Joe Lefkowitz’s website. The lefties do not like the changeup on the outer third. Middle down appears to be an effective location, too.

The only issue with the changeup is command, as both charts make clear. You can see a concentration of white near the middle of the zone. Unsurprisingly, lefties eat this pitch for breakfast, hitting .480 with a .760 SLG against it. He’s going to put a pitch there from time to time, and we’re going to eat our collective hats when the ball travels 400 feet. But we can take solace in Garcia’s general effectiveness against lefties.

A glance at Garcia’s splits reveals that while he strikes out a few more lefties and allows fewer homers, he does walk them more than he does righties. This has a lot to do with fastball location. The only zone in which he experienced significant success with the fastball against lefties in 2010 was middle down. That might be why he throws the fastball outside the zone.

Against righties Garcia mixes his pitches a bit more. Last year when facing same-handed batters he threw his fastball 32 percent of the time, his slider 30.2 percent, and his changeup 27.5 percent. Again, he didn’t generate many swings and misses on the fastball, which is to be expected when it averages around 88 mph. It appears that command might have been an issue with this, too. An 88 mph fastball in one of those white zones must look awfully tempting for a righty at bat.

It’s pretty clear that there will be ups and downs for Garcia. He wasn’t terrible against either lefties or righties last season, and with his changeup he’s proven particularly capable against lefties. I do wonder if he could work in his splitter a bit more often, at least against righties. He delivers it at around the same speed as his changeup, but righties seemingly beat it into the ground. But since he threw it only 114 times all of last season, I’m not counting on anything in that regard.

The Yankees don’t expect the world from Freddy Garcia. He represents a decent choice for a back-end starter who can eat some innings early in the year. He does have some strong points, foremost of which is his ability to handle lefties using his changeup. If he can continue what he was doing last year he should help shore up the Yanks rotation. If he can’t, they’re on the hook for nothing.

Looking at Soriano’s cutter against lefties

For Horacio Ramirez, straight up. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

About two weeks ago we learned that Rafael Soriano has something in common with Mariano Rivera beyond being a really awesome relief pitcher: he also throws a cutter. Mike Fast at Baseball Prospectus dug through the data and found that prior to 2010, Soriano would use the cutter almost exclusively against right-handed batters and go after lefties with a little two-seamer away, which sounds good in theory but it wasn’t really working for him. Lefties tagged Soriano for a .313 wOBA before last season, which is better than league average but far too high for a guy that’s supposed to be an elite reliever.

That all changed in 2010, perhaps with some help from the Rays coaching staff or just an adjustment on Soriano’s part. Fast found that Rafi started throwing his cutter to left-handed batters more than he had in the past, something we can now visualize thanks to the great new heat maps feature at FanGraphs

I’m certain there are some classification issues, with a few cutters being classified as sliders and vice versa by the PitchFX system, but the margin for error isn’t that big. MFIKY clearly threw more cut fastballs to lefties last season, and the early returns on the strategy were good. He held lefties to a .267 wOBA against and cut down on their line drive rate by almost ten percent compared to 2009. Of course we’re talking about a really small sample of data here (he faced just 118 LHB in 2010), so let’s not take this stuff to heart just yet.

The side effect of going with the cutter instead of the sinking two-seamer is the lack of ground balls. Soriano coaxed an infield pop-up out on a whopping 17.9% of the balls lefties put in play last year, and a regular old fly ball 45.9% of the time. An infield fly ball rate that high isn’t something that’s sustainable; he had been around 10% in 2007 and 2009, his two previous full and healthy seasons. The fly ball rate in general is high, which is Soriano’s forte, but the spray chart shows that he didn’t give up too many deep fly balls last year (that’s balls in play from Tropicana Field in 2010 overlaid onto Yankee Stadium). Not every fly ball has to be to the warning track.

Soriano won’t be as good as he was with the Rays in 2010 with the Yankees in 2011, and that’s fine. He’s going to give up a few more homers because of the ballpark, but he should be an excellent weapon out of the pen as long as he stays healthy. The thing to keep an eye on is that cutter against lefties, and whether or not he continues or maybe even increases the usage of the pitch. Perhaps Mariano Rivera could help him improve even more by showing him how effective the pitch can be when it’s thrown in their hands. At the end of the day, the results are what matters most, but Soriano appears to have found a process that worked for him last summer.