Open Thread: Ruben Rivera

Once upon a time, Baseball America once put Ruben Rivera on the cover of their magazine with the caption “The Next Mickey Mantle?” I haven’t ever been able to find a picture of it online, but trust me, it happened. Jim Callis and all those other folks readily admit it.

The Yankees signed Rivera as a 17-year-old free agent out of Panama on this date in 1990, and less than four years later he had become a fixture on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list. He was number 76 in 1994, then number two behind only Alex Rodriguez in 1995. The next year he was number three behind Andruw Jones and Paul Wilson. The year after that he was number nine, and in his final appearance on the list, before the 1998 season, he was number 40.

Rivera had cups of coffee with the big league team in 1995 and 1996, hitting .281/.377/.438 in 107 plate appearances, but they traded him to the Padres in April of 1997 as part of the package for Hideki Irabu. I suspect a deal of that magnitude would break the internet today. Rivera spent parts of four seasons in San Diego but never did live up to the hype, hitting .204/.301/.397 in nearly 1,200 plate appearances before being released and giving it a go with the Reds, Rangers, and Giants. The most memorable play of his career is the one you see in the video above.

The Yankees did bring Rivera back in between his stints with Cincinnati and Texas, but he was released in Spring Training after stealing a glove and bat belonging to Derek Jeter, then selling them to a memorabilia dealer for over two grand. The players reportedly took a vote and asked the front office to release him after the incident. Rivera has spent the last six seasons annihilating the Mexican League for the Piratas de Campeche, hitting .344/.446/.638 with 155 homers in 589 games. Those are Mickey Mantle numbers all right, they’re just in the wrong league.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. The Monday Night Football game is the Chiefs at the Patriots (8:30pm ET on ESPN), plus the Devils and Islanders are in action as well. Talk about whatever your heart desires, anything goes.

Report: Luxury tax threshold will remain unchanged for two years

Via Joel Sherman, the luxury tax threshold will remain at $178M for the next two seasons under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams will be taxed 40% on every dollar they spend over that amount. The threshold and tax will be raised to $189M and 50% in 2014, respectively.

The Yankees are the only team in baseball to consistently pay the luxury tax, but other clubs have had to pay on occasion. The Red Sox and Phillies will be awfully close to that threshold next year as well. The Yankees owed $18M last season and $25.7M the year before, bringing their total luxury tax payout to $192.2M since it was instituted in 2003. One of these days they’ll just rename this thing the Yankee Tax and be done with it.

Extension candidate: Brett Gardner

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees are no strangers to the multi-year deal. In the last five years they’ve signed nine free agents, whether their own or from other teams, to contracts of at least three years. They’ve also executed two contract extensions of three or more years in that span, for CC Sabathia and Robinson Cano. Every member of the Yankees infield originally signed a deal of three years or more.

Yesterday Moshe looked at the possibility of signing Russell Martin to an extension. That would give the Yankees a superb defensive catcher for the next few years, and would allow them to gradually work in Jesus Montero. There are only three other Yankees position players whom we haven’t covered: Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher. Any of these three could get an extension offer this winter, but Gardner appears the most likely. He’s about to hit his first season of arbitration, so now could be the time to lock him up at a reasonable rate.

Depending on how you view the numbers, Gardner might be the most underrated player in the league. From 2010 through 2011 he accumulated 11.3 fWAR, which ranks 13th in all of baseball. Ask a random sampling of fans, and Gardner might not even rank in the top 50 position players. That’s a huge discrepancy, and the perception might make Gardner a prime extension candidate.

The issue with Gardner’s run value is that it almost entirely derives from his defensive numbers. We can see that Gardner is an elite defender in left; even with the eyeball test it’s hard to argue that he gets to more balls than his peers. It’s the degree of his superiority that’s under question. Almost half of Gardner’s value comes from UZR, which in the last two years has totaled more than 50 runs. That’s almost 20 runs better than the second-highest UZR in the last two years — at any position. Is Gardner really this good?

While there exists the chance that yes, Gardner is eons better than his peers in the field, it doesn’t seem as though he’s a singular talent. It’s more likely that he’s superior to his peers, just not to the degree that UZR suggests. Still, his defense does bring considerable value to the table. His offense is a weapon, too. In the last two years he has a 111 wRC+, meaning he’s performed above average. His .364 OBP ranks 26th among players with at least 1,000 PA in the last two seasons, and he’s stolen the second most bases. The combination leaves the Yankees with a valuable asset.

The only issue is with Gardner’s ability to continue what he’s done in the last two years. Since 1950 there are only 18 players who lasted 5,000 or more PA with an OBP greater than .350 and a SLG under .380. A few of the contemporary names might not inspire much confidence, either: Chone Figgins and Luis Castillo. Castillo is probably the better example. His performance only dropped off in his age-34 season, after a number of knee injuries. From 1999 through 2009 he produced an OBP of at least .350, which works very well for Gardner. While Figgins has been pretty horrible with the Mariners, his true decline really began this year, in his age-33 season. Even in his first season with Seattle he produced a .340 OBP.

Gardner enters his age-28 season in 2012, and is eligible for free agency following the 2014 season. Any extension should probably buy out a year of free agency, so a four-year deal with an option could be the best course of action should the Yankees pursue this. MLB Trade Rumors estimates Gardner’s salary at $3.3 million. It’s tough to project going forward, since it will depend on his performances in the next two seasons. Chances are he’ll earn between $14 and $17 million in his arbitration years. A four-year, $22 million deal, with an option and a buy-out, could possibly get the job done. That would cover Gardner through his age-31 season, which is around the time that his comparables started to fall off.

Chances are that the Yankees will work out a one-year deal with Gardner this year and then reassess next off-season. It’s tempting to lock up a player that brings a range of skills to the table. Gardner gets on base, steals bags, and plays superb defense. If the Yankees can get him locked up at a reasonable rate for four seasons, it could benefit them going forward. It pays to have a player like Gardner on the roster.

Granderson, Cano finish fourth and sixth in AL MVP race

The AL Cy Young Award wasn’t enough. Justin Verlander was named the MVP of the American League today, receiving 13 of 28 first place votes. He’s the first pitcher to win the award since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and the first starting pitcher to win the award since Roger Clemens in 1986. He’s also the first Tiger to be named MVP since Willie Hernandez in 1984.

Curtis Granderson was the Yankees’ best player all season, and was rewarded for his efforts with a fourth place finish in the voting. He received three first place votes and finished with 215 points, trailing only Verlander (280), Jacoby Ellsbury (242), and Jose Bautista (231). The top five finish triggers an escalator clause in his contract, raising the value of his 2013 option from $14M to $15M. Robinson Cano finished sixth in the voting with 112 points, though he did not receive any first or second place votes.

CC Sabathia (two sixth place votes), Mark Teixeira (one seventh and one tenth place vote), and David Robertson (one tenth place vote) also appeared on ballots. The full results are available on the BBWAA’s site. The NL MVP will be announced tomorrow at 2pm, the final award of the season.

Why we can expect a better OBP from Alex Rodriguez, the sequel

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Last offseason, on the heels of Alex Rodriguez posting a career-low .341 OBP over 595 PAs (an OBP only .016 points above league average), I posited that Alex was a strong bet for an improvement on that mark for the 2011 season, and indeed, Alex turned in a .362 OBP over significantly fewer PAs (428). While that mark still falls well short of his career .386 OBP, it wound up being the third-best OBP on the 2011 Yankees, and was well above the league average of .321.

For the second straight winter, I think Yankee fans can realistically expect an improved on-base percentage from Alex next season. Now the obvious reason for optimism is the fact that Alex basically only played half a season in 2011. During his healthy first half, he was hitting .299/.377/.507 through the end of June. The seven games he played in in July before hitting the shelf for knee surgery didn’t do anything to help his cause, and his OBP fell to .366 as he went on the DL (with 33 walks and four HBPs to his name through 80 team games). Alex didn’t really do much of anything in the 19 games he played over the remainder of the season — though he still managed to get on base — putting up a  .191/.345/.353 line (15 walks, 1 HBP) over his final 84 PAs.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that a healthy Alex would have managed to come close to doubling his first half walk total, finishing the year at around 65 walks, which is what he did in 2008, a season he OBP’d .392 in 594 PAs. Now, this hypothetical healthy 2011 Alex still might not have finished with an OBP quite that high, but he was also hitting .295 at the time of his injury with 90 hits. For comparison’s sake, he hit .302 in 2008 and had 154 hits. Without going too crazy with extrapolations, it doesn’t seem terribly unrealistic to expect a .290-ish-hitting A-Rod to post an OBP somewhere in the high .370s.

Of course, that’s all a bit too intangible, so I’ll expand on the idea some by looking at Alex’s plate discipline data. I gathered PD data for Alex going back to 2009 from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, as it seems the general consensus has been that BP’s newly introduced data is superior to that of FanGraphs’ BIS-provided percentages and I was curious to see just how much the two data sets differentiated. For the most part, in the small sample that I culled, it appeared that the differences in the data sets were mostly on the order of 100 to 500 basis points — which sounds like a lot, except 100 basis points = 1% — with BP’s numbers generally coming in slightly lower. The major difference between the two sets is in the Swinging Strike%, as it appears that BP’s percentage also includes foul balls.

Anyway, I point all this out to show that yes, there are tangible differences, and eventually BP’s will probably be the more reliable go-to, but I’m going to go with FanGraphs for this analysis because the BP data isn’t backfilled/built-out enough yet, as it doesn’t yet allow you to slice and dice by month or compare against career numbers.

Anyway, here are A-Rod’s plate discipline numbers (per FanGraphs) from the last three seasons:

O-Sw% Z-Sw% Sw% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% Sw-Strk%
2009 21.1% 67.4% 42.6% 58.8% 84.9% 78.0% 46.6% 9.1%
2010 25.3% 68.5% 45.0% 65.6% 86.1% 79.8% 45.6% 8.9%
2011 27.0% 66.1% 44.0% 61.7% 83.7% 76.0% 43.4% 10.3%
Car. 21.4% 67.9% 44.0% 53.0% 83.2% 75.7% 48.7% 10.5%

It won’t surprise anyone to see that Alex’s lowest O-Swing% and O-Contact% of the last three years was in 2009, his last .400-plus wOBA campaign. Somewhat foreboding is Alex’s 27% O-Swing% in 2011 — up from 2010’s 25.3% and considerably higher than his 21.4% career mark — though his O-Contact% was down from 2010’s 65.6%, which was his highest percentage since the data started being collected in 2002. Still, the 61.7% O-Contact% was also a good deal higher than his career mark, and Alex swinging at more bad pitches and making more contact with them is probably not a recipe for OBP success.

However, the 2011 data set is a bit skewed by the fact that Alex only had 31 PAs in July, 19 in August and 65 in September.

Here’s his 2011 monthly breakdown:

O-Sw% Z-Sw% Sw% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% Sw-Strk%
April 20.1% 64.0% 38.7% 60.0% 86.2% 78.4% 42.5% 8.4%
May 32.9% 63.9% 47.2% 66.3% 87.7% 79.6% 46.2% 9.3%
June 26.0% 65.0% 43.7% 58.8% 83.0% 75.2% 45.4% 10.5%
July 40.4% 72.2% 56.6% 61.9% 74.4% 70.0% 50.9% 16.8%
August 23.9% 80.7% 46.8% 54.6% 92.0% 80.6% 40.3% 9.1%
Sept. 24.4% 67.7% 39.6% 59.5% 74.6% 68.6% 35.1% 12.2%
Car. 21.4% 67.9% 44.0% 53.0% 83.2% 75.7% 48.7% 10.5%

Alex’s two best months of the season were April (.422 wOBA; 16.3% BB%) and June (.423 wOBA; 11.9% BB%). May was his only fully healthy month of really poor (.328 wOBA; 4.8% BB%) play, although his May line was dragged down by one of the worst four-week stretches of his career, which I spent quite a bit of time documenting earlier this season. April was Alex’s most selective month of the season (a mere 20.1% O-Swing%), which makes it no surprise it was also his best month. His May O-Swing% of 32.9% along with a 66.3% O-Contact% underscore just how out-of-whack he was that month.

In June, his PD numbers were pretty much where you’d expect them to be given his outstanding month, as he basically matched his career averages in every category except — somewhat unexpectedly — O-Swing% and O-Contact%, though the latter was his lowest percentage of the full months he played in 2011.

I would expect a healthy Alex to be swinging more in line with his April and June 2011 rates, and in turn, better the .362 OBP he turned in on the season. The ever-optimistic Bill James agrees, and has Alex hitting .277/.373/.497 next season. That’s probably a bit aggressive, as much of that OBP is fueled by a projected 70 walks and 12.1% BB% — numbers he’s only eclipsed once in the last four seasons (in 2009) — although I’m also not sure I’d bet against a highly motivated Alex Rodriguez. He may be turning 37 next year, but a healthy year should go a long way in silencing some of the critics that wanted to blame the team’s playoff downfall on a far-from-100% A-Rod.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 21st, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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From Cashman, a thought on the new Wild Card

Over the next few days, perhaps even before Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA will announce a new labor agreement that will change the shape of the game. We know the new deal will have HGH testing and new compensation rules, and the extra Wild Card team has been an open secret for the better part of a year. In this space, Joe wrote about the balanced leagues a few days ago.

This weekend, Brian Cashman spoke with The Wall Street Journal about the new playoff format, and he made it exceedingly clear that the Yankees recognize the inherent randomness of the playoffs. A one-game, winner-makes-the-ALDS format just drives home the point. “You do not want to be a wild card,” Cashman said to Dan Barbarisi. “The only way you want to be a wild card is if you’re not going to make the playoffs. You definitely want to win the division now.”

It is, of course, an obvious point, and we can highlight the 2001 season in which the 102-win A’s would have played the 85-win Twins in a one-game set for the right to make the Division Series as the perfect example. The Twins could have unseated a team 17 games better than they were. So the Yankees, the team with the most division titles since the advent of the three-division league, will maintain that singular focus on the AL East crown. With a new playoff format, it becomes ever more important to reach that still-infuriating best-of-five set. No one wants to lose Game 163 against an inferior team.