Your favorite reporters on Darwin Barney’s bat

We’ve got some time to kill on a slow afternoon before tonight’s game, so enjoy. I lost it once Heyman got involved.

The League Average Derek Jeter

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

On the afternoon of June 13th, Derek Jeter limped off the field in the fifth inning of an eventual loss to the Indians. The Cap’n had flown out to right to open the frame, but he appeared to hurt something coming out of the box and was replaced in the next half inning by Eduardo Nunez. At the time, Jeter was hitting .260/.324/.325 in 296 plate appearances, and the calf strain he suffered on the play would keep him on the shelf for just about three weeks.

Nunez filled in capably while Jeter was on the shelf, adding the kind of life and electricity to the shortstop position that the Yankees haven’t had since 2009. The Yankees went 14-5 in Derek’s absence, going from 2.5 games back in the AL East to 1.5 up. As great as Jeter has been for the Yankees, there was definitely a sense of dread immediately before his return, because we all knew that not only would his unproductive bat be back in the lineup every day, it would be in the leadoff spot getting more plate appearances than everyone else. We all knew this, except we were all wrong.

Since coming off the disabled list on Independence Day against the same Indians he faced on the day of his injury, Jeter has hit .326/.382/.457 in 154 plate appearances with the same number of extra base hits (12) as he had before the injury in almost half the trips to the plate. That has raised his season line to .283/.344/.370, a performance that is exactly league average in terms of wRC+. That’s a top eight mark among full-time big league shortstops, an indication of how much Jeter has turned his season around and how weak the position is around the league. A 100 wRC+ at an up-the-middle position is pretty damn good.

“Staying back,” said Jeter after last night’s three hit (including a triple) effort. “Stay back better and obviously you’re going to drive balls more. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been back, so I just want it to continue.” Derek has been driving the ball with much more authority since coming back, as the increased rate of extra base hits suggests. As we tend to do with stuff like this, let’s turn to the spray charts. First, it’s pre-DL Jeter

Almost everything he hit in the air went the other way or to center field. I count what, ten balls pulled into left (hits + outs)? That’s out of 231 balls in play. The majority of his hits came on balls right back up the middle or filleted through the right side (remember, the points indicate where the defender fielded the ball, not where it landed). Now let’s look at the post-DL spray chart

This one is much more spread out. The majority of his balls in play are still to center and right, that’s just the kind of hitter he is and always has been, but there’s also way more balls pulled into left. I count 12 balls hit to the outfield on the pull side, including one right to the warning track and one actually over the fence. That’s 12 balls to left in 115 balls in play after the DL stint versus ten in 231 before. It could be small sample size noise, but give how he’s been actually driving the ball these last few weeks, I’m guessing there’s something more to it than just coincidence.

Of course, we have to acknowledge that Jeter still does the vast majority of his damage against lefties (.500/.538/.750 in 39 PA) and is mediocre at best against righties (.265/.327/.353 in 115 PA). That’s a similar split to his pre-DL performance (.299/.405/.403 vs. LHP and .246/.294/.297 vs. RHP) and last year as well (.321/.391/.481 vs. LHP and .216/.316/.317 vs. RHP). At his age, I think we’re just going to have to accept the platoon split, which is made somewhat more tolerable because the best starters in the AL East are generally southpaws.

“You can get a lot more work in when you don’t have to play games,” said Jeter shortly after coming off the DL, referring to the work he did to stay back on the ball with rehabbing the calf. “So I sort of look at it as a blessing in disguise, I hope. I’ve felt good since I’ve been back.” The Cap’n has been performing to his career averages for about six weeks now, bringing his overall season performance to the league average, which is both encouraging and refreshing.

Would Jorge have made a good backup catcher?

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The Yankees made one thing clear early this past off-season: Jorge Posada was done as a catcher. Who would take over was anyone’s guess, but the conclusion came with no ambiguities. Posada wouldn’t even back up the new starter. Instead he’d slide into the full-time DH role, with the hope that a removal from the rigors of catching would keep him healthy and productive in the final year of his contract. The plan, as we’ve seen this season, didn’t follow the script.

If Posada had his way, though, he wouldn’t have shed the tools of ignorance. Instead, he would have moved into the backup role that Francisco Cervelli inhabits. As he told ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews, “I could have (caught) this year. I could have been a backup this year.” The only question is of whether this arrangement would work out better than the current one.

In purely offensive terms, it certainly would. Cervelli, after producing serviceable numbers in 2010, has in 2011 hit in a manner you’d expect from a backup catcher. There’s nothing wrong with that, since he is the backup, and it does appear that at least some of the pitchers on the staff — most notably CC Sabathia — like throwing to him. The problem is that we can’t measure that value. We can measure offense, though, and in those terms Posada comes out with a distinct advantage.

The Yankees have started the backup catcher in 29 games this year, 27 for Cervelli and two for Gustavo Molina. In that time they have combined to produce 1.8 runs below average. Posada, in his 92 games, has produced 1.9 runs below average. That is, in more than three times the number of games he’s been only 0.1 runs worse, meaning he’d be a ton better than the current backup catchers in those 29 games. (Some quick math puts Posada at 0.6 runs below average, using his 1.9 runs below average on a per-game basis.)

That leaves me with four questions, none we can answer with any certainty.

1) Would Posada have performed better, both at catcher and DH, if he had played behind the plate roughly 30 times?

2) Would Posada have remained healthy enough to stay behind the plate?

3) Would Posada, as the backup catcher, have started more than 30 times, therefore giving Russell Martin more time off and perhaps keeping him fresher and more effective?

4) What kind of effect would Posada have had on the pitching staff?

The first two questions can be answered only with guesses. Posada might have better career numbers as a catcher than as a DH, but those splits never tell the whole truth. How many of Posada’s ABs as DH have come when he’s been too banged up to catch? Wouldn’t any nagging injury that prevents him from catching also affect him at the plate as he DHs? To the second question we might guess that he wouldn’t remain healthy, since he hit the DL before catching 30 games in every season from 2008 through 2010. But again, that’s just a guess.

Chances are, if he stayed healthy, the answer to No. 3 would be yes. Again, it’s a guess, but I think it’s a better guess than the first two. The Yankees clearly avoided using Gustavo Molina early in the season, leveraging off-days in order to play Russell Martin in almost every game until Cervelli’s return. But Girardi almost certainly would have gone to Posada before he went to Molina, if only to keep Jorge sharp behind the plate. (Sharp being a relative term.) The other aspect of this answer plays into the next question, too.

It’s tough to tell what kind of effect Jorge would have had on the pitching staff, because we don’t have any reliable measure of such an effect. It is pretty clear, however, that Posada would not have started with either A.J. Burnett or Freddy Garcia on the mound. Both throw plenty of pitches in the dirt, and those would give the aged Posada trouble. That’s the only thing that might have held him back from starting more often than Cervelli/Molina. He would have been essentially limited to starting with Nova, Hughes, Colon, and maybe Sabathia on the mound.

Since Jorge hasn’t played the role of backup in over a decade, since we don’t know how he’d hold up physically, and since we don’t know how he’d affect the pitching staff, it’s difficult to find a solid answer to the posed question. Offensively the arrangement surely would have worked better, at least to the tune of a run and perhaps more, if you think that Jorge would have hit better if he played the field. But again, that’s an argument from theory with little usable evidence behind it. All we have to go on is speculation. Would Jorge have fit better with this team as the backup catcher, or would that have only led to more problems?

The Ever-Changing Bullpen

Uh, David. Whatever you do, do not turn around. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

One of the best and worst things about baseball is that almost nothing goes according to plan. Not in a single game, not in a typical three-game series, and certainly not over the course of a full season. Players perform in a way other than expected (for better or for worse), guys get hurt, players get traded, all sorts of stuff happens. No roster entity is more volatile than the bullpen, which is basically just a collection of guys working from one small sample to the next.

When the season started, Mariano Rivera was being setup by Eighth Inning Guy™ Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain in the seventh. David Robertson was the world’s most overqualified sixth inning reliever, Boone Logan the shaky lefty specialist, Luis Ayala the extra guy, and Bartolo Colon the long man. Phil Hughes‘ suckiness and shoulder issues forced Colon into the rotation and brought a cache of spare part relievers to the Bronx: Lance Pendleton, Amaury Sanit, Buddy Carlyle … all made appearances at one time or another. Ayala’s injury brought Hector Noesi into the fold.

Because of Soriano’s early season ineffectiveness and eventual injury, Joba and Robertson moved up a rung on the bullpen totem pole. Both performed well, very well in fact, then all of a sudden Joba was down for a count with a torn elbow ligament that required season-ending Tommy John surgery. In the span of three weeks, the Yankees lost their two primary setup guys. Given the importance the team (or at least Joe Girardi) seems to place on these stupid bullpen inning assignments, you’d think the Yankees were headed for certain doom, but nope.

Robertson, even when Soriano and Joba were healthy, had developed into the best reliever in the American League (leads the league in fWAR), a legitimate All-Star with the second highest strikeout rate in baseball at 13.59 K/9 (min. 40 IP, second only to Craig Kimbrel’s 14.11 K/9) and one of the lowest batting averages against (.179). His walk rate continues to improve as well, and is gradually approaching normalcy…

Since June 5th, the date of Joba’s last appearance, Robertson has walked a total of seven batters unintentionally in 24.1 IP. That’s a 2.59 uIBB/9. He’s walked a batter in only five of those 25 appearances as well, so he’s certainly gotten that part of his game under control. Robertson’s been amazing, but he’s only part of the story because of the rest of the bullpen fell into place behind him.

The Carlyles and Sanits and Pendletons of the world were replaced with Cory Wade, who’s been so effective for the Yankees that both myself and Hannah wrote about him recently. Boone Logan has turned things around since a mid-June series in Cincinnati, improvement that has more to do with him dropping his arm slot just a bit (check out the release points) to get some more bite on his slider than it does some pep talk with Alex Rodriguez. Ayala is the “only in an emergency, last arm in the bullpen” kinda guy, and Noesi is the de facto long reliever. He should be starting in the minors, but that’s another post for another time. Oh, and Soriano’s back from his injury and pitching well, and has assumed seventh inning duties now. He’s the Seventh Inning Guy™ now.

Other than the closer in the ninth inning, I hate the whole concept of assigning relievers to specific innings because the manager manages the game to arbitrary endpoints (why are outs 22-24 any different than 19-21?). I hope that at some point Soriano pitches well enough to take back the eighth inning, freeing up Girardi to be a little more liberal with his use of Robertson. Having him start an inning fresh with no outs and no one on base is pretty much a waste given his propensity to pitch out of jams. I think this is another post for another time as well, so let’s leave it at that.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that once again, the bullpen is a dynamic entity over the course of a 162-game season, changing as needed to accommodate injury, poor performance, etc. Only three relievers (Robertson, Mo, and Logan) have spent the entire season on the active roster, everyone else (a total of 12 others relievers) has been either hurt, demoted, released, or all of the above. The Yankees started the year with a set formula, and now it’s entirely different and probably even more effective than originally expected.

2011 Draft: Closing Thoughts

We can finally put a bow on the 2011 draft now that the signing deadline has passed, and according to Baseball America’s draft database (no subs. req’d), the Yankees signed just 22 of their 50 selections. That assumes the Chaz Hebert and Joey Maher report is correct but BA is still in the process of updating their info. A typical signing class is usually 30 players or so, maybe 35 in a good year, so the Yankees are a bit below that. It’s possible that some signings just haven’t been reported yet, especially some of the lesser prospects, but I can’t imagine it’s more than two or three guys, maybe five at the most.

The actual draft, all 50 rounds, is just step one of the process. Getting the kids under contract is another matter entirely, and now that we know who did and who didn’t sign on the dotted line, we can get a much clearer picture of the kind of talent the Yankees imported this year. Let’s digest it all…

  • Based on the info in Baseball America’s advanced database (subs. req’d), the Yankees spent at least $5.6225M on this year’s draft. That’s all the over-slot signings, but does not include Hebert, Maher, and seven others. Let’s round up and call it an even $6M. Compared to the last few years, when they spent around $7-8M, that’s light. I’d happily take one less brand name LOOGY per year if it meant pumping another $2-4M into the draft budget.
  • Not signing second rounder Sam Stafford stinks even though they’ll get that pick back next year. You’d always like to have the player now rather than pick later. However, if the medicals didn’t check out, then I can’t fault them for passing. There’s only so much homework you’re allowed to do before the draft. Remember, they ran into a similar problem with Scott Bittle in 2008, and they turned the compensation pick into J.R. Murphy while Bittle blew out his arm. The Stafford comp pick will be #89 overall next year no matter what, and they can’t lose that pick for signing a free agent. Here’s a list of all the comp picks in next year’s draft.
  • Among the guys they did sign, fifth rounder Greg Bird got the most money ($1.1M) and is probably the best prospect. I assume they’re going to try him at catcher (they announced him as a catcher at the draft), but I’m not sure how that will work out. If it doesn’t, his bat is going to have to carry him, and you’d like to see a little more well-roundness from your top draft prospect.
  • Dante Bichette Jr. ($750k), Matt Duran ($335k), and Bubba Jones ($350k) are all cut from the same cloth: bat-first prospects that are already relegated to a corner spot. Bichette is the best prospect of the trio and has the best chance to make it work in a corner outfield spot. That’s not saying much though. Jake Cave ($825k) is a bit more dynamic offensively and has a chance to provide some value on defense. Justin James probably has the best all-around tools package, but he’s super raw and a bit of a project.
  • The Yankees did a much better job on the mound, which has been a running theme the last few years. Jordan Cote ($725k), Dan Camarena ($335k), Hayden Sharp ($200k), and Rookie Davis ($550k) are all high school upside plays, with Cote and Sharp having the most potential but also the least amount of refinement. I like Camarena more than most, Davis less than most. Hebert and Maher are two more interesting arms, assuming they did actually sign.
  • And, of course, the Yankees used a few picks to refill the bullpen pipeline, grabbing power college arms like Mark Montgomery, Branden Pinder, Ben Paullus, Phil Wetherell, and Zach Arneson. They’ve done a good job of incorporating these kinds of guys into the big league roster in recent years, but they’ve still got some work to do with the starting pitchers.
  • I really liked the Yankees’ draft haul last year (if people bothered to look beyond the Cito Culver pick, they’d like it too), lots more than this year. Last year they got up the middle position players with upside, this year it was all corner bats, the easiest thing to find on the free agent market. This is nowhere near a weak class, but I’m left wanting more. Knowing what we do at this very moment right now, I just can’t give this year’s draft haul anything more than a C. It feels they drafted for need more than anything.

And finally, because I know everyone is waiting with bated breath, yes the Pirates did sign first overall pick and 2008 Yankees’ first rounder Gerrit Cole. He got $8M but not a big league contract, which blows my mind. How Scott Boras let that happen, I’ll never know. Anyway, the $8M is by far the largest up front bonus in draft history, surpassing the $6.5M the Buccos have Jameson Taillon last year. So what do you think, ~$4M from the Yankees in 2008 or three years at UCLA plus $8M from the Pirates in 2011? I think the kid made the right choice, I think it’s pretty clear in hindsight.