What Went Wrong: Alex Rodriguez

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Spring Training can be deceiving. Every year we see players put up huge numbers in camp before having miserable regular seasons, and we also see players with terrible exhibition stats before raising hell in games that count. It’s the nature of the beast, the small sample, the questionable competition (minor league players, etc.), all sorts of stuff. We fall for it every year, looking for meaning in meaningless games.

When Alex Rodriguez came to Spring Training this year, he was ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat smaller than he was in 2010. Not that he was fat before or anything like that, but he was noticeably slimmer and seemed much lighter on his feet. A-Rod then proceeded the hit the snot out of the ball for six weeks (.388/.444/.898), and before you knew it, people were predicting an MVP award and a return to the glory days of pre-2008.

For a while, Alex was on that MVP pace. He came out of the gate like a madman in April, with five homers, eleven walks, six strikeouts, and a .370/.483/.826 batting line in the team’s first 17 games of the season. A-Rod fell into a slump after that, hitting just .171/.236/.232 with no homers over the next three weeks or so. He righted the ship with a two-homer day against the Rays on May 17th, and hit well enough over the next few weeks to carry a .301/.377/.509 batting line into July 1st.

Although he played in 80 of the team’s first 86 games, Rodriguez clearly wasn’t 100% physically. Joe Girardi said A-Rod was playing through a sore left shoulder in mid-June, and a few days later we learned that he was playing through a sore right knee, an injury he apparently suffered during the series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He was voted as a AL’s starting third baseman in the All-Star Game (and he actually deserved the honor), but he had to skip the event when that sore right knee turned into a slightly torn meniscus. After a second opinion, the decision was made to have surgery.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The procedure was supposed to keep him on the shelf for four-to-six weeks, and it ended up being more like seven. Not really a big deal. After a pair of rehab games with Triple-A Scranton, A-Rod returned to the lineup on August 21st and promptly went 0-for-5. He did pick up two hits next time out, then homered in his third game back, but he was playing with a new injury, a sprained left thumb. It was a fluke injury more than anything, he jammed the digit will making a play at third base in his first game back against the Twins. He missed time in early-September then even more in the middle of the month when the injury lingered.

After coming back from the knee injury, Alex played in just 19 of the team’s final 37 games. He hit .191/.345/.353 in 84 plate appearances during that time, but at least he walked more than he struck out (15 BB, 13 K). The crummy performance carried over into the ALDS, when Alex contributed to the punchless 4-5-6 hitters with a 2-for-18 showing in the five games against Detroit. Despite the sluggish performance with the bat, I though A-Rod looked very good on defense later in the season and in the playoffs, but that’s hardly a consolation prize.

All told, the now 36-year-old Rodriguez had his worst season since he was a 21-year-old kid with the Mariners in 1997. He hit .276/.362/.461 overall, a not terrible .361 wOBA that placed seventh among the 28 third baseman with at least 400 plate appearances this year. His power production declined considerably, evidenced by a .185 ISO that was his first sub-.225 ISO since that 1997 season. For the second year in a row, he struggled to hit lefties (.277/.367/.383), a demographic a right-handed cleanup hitter should crush.

The decline in production isn’t really a huge problem though, the Yankees can live with an overpaid .350-.360 wOBA third baseman. The real problem is the injuries. A-Rod has been on the disabled list every year since signing his new ten-year, $275M contract, and this year he failed to play 100 games for the first time ever. It’s been four years since he last played in more than 140 games. That’s a whole lot of at-bats for Eduardo Nunez types. Once again, we’re left heading into the offseason hoping that a winter of rest will help Alex stay on the field for a full season next year, but that looks more and more like a pipe dream.

What Went Wrong: Jorge Posada

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

After more than a decade behind the plate, the Yankees decided that Jorge Posada‘s days as a catcher were done last offseason. They signed Russell Martin in December, making Posada’s transition to DH official. The Yankees had concerns not just about his defense, which had deteriorated to unacceptable levels, but also his long-term health. Jorge scored poorly in two of the three ImPACT tests he took in 2010, the result of countless foul tips to the head over the years.

Everyone knew the statistics, or at least it seemed that way. Posada was just a .223/.336/.358 career hitter in 350 career plate appearances as a DH coming into the season, a performance that foretold certain doom for 2011. Maybe that’s a little overdramatic, but it wasn’t promising even if 350 plate appearances spread across 14 years isn’t much of a sample. However, it stood to reason that fewer time spent behind the plate would help keep Jorge fresh and therefore make him more productive at the plate. There were two sides to narrative.

Posada did not get a hit in the first game of the season, but he did reach base three times (a single and two walks) in the second. All was right in the world when Jorge hit two homers in the third game of the season, then another in the fourth game. After a four-game, 15-at-bat hitless streak (eight strikeouts), Posada went deep in each game of a two-game set against the Orioles in mid-April. He homered again nine days later, but that was basically the end of Posada as an effective hitter.

An 0-for-17 stretch followed the two homers against Baltimore, and it took 18 games for Jorge to record his next ten hits. With his batting line sitting at .165/.272/.349 on the morning of May 14th, Joe Girardi penciled Posada in as the number nine hitter against the Red Sox. Insulted by the move, Jorge pulled himself from the lineup and originally covered by saying his back was stiff. He told the Yankees he wanted out out of frustration, but later apologized for the incident. The team never discussed releasing him even though he was in breach of contract.

(AP Photo)

Posada returned to the starting lineup three days later, and promptly went 2-for-3 with a double against the Rays. Another double followed the next day, and Jorge went on a little mini-tear that saw him hit .330/.392/.426 with three homers in 102 plate appearances immediately following the benching. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. He reached base just ten times in his next 56 plate appearances, and with Eric Chavez coming off the DL, Posada lost playing time. From August 1st through the end of the season, a span of 55 team games, he batted just 88 times.

Jorge finished the season with a .235/.315/.398 batting line and 14 homers, easily the worst full season of his career. His .309 wOBA ranked 14th out of the 16 DH’s that came to the plate at least 300 times. Posada did not go down without a fight though, he was the Yankees best hitter in the ALDS (6-for-14 with four walks in five games against the Tigers), the last hurrah for a great Yankee. He threw a base stealer out while catching six emergency innings in a September game against the Angels, and he even played an inning at his original position, second base. Ironically enough, defense was the highlight of his season.

Despite the awful overall performance, Posada did hit right-handed pitchers well, to the tune of .269/.348/.466 in 316 plate appearances. He was completely unusable against southpaws though, hitting .092/.169/.108 in 71 plate appearances. That’s the only reason why he was in the lineup against the Tigers in the ALDS, they started four righties. The Yankees managed to get an almost exactly league average performance out of their DH’s in 2011 (.249/.329/.427), but that’s because Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Jesus Montero helped pick up the slack. Posada, an all-time great Yankee, was part of the problem this past season, almost assuredly his last in pinstripes. The end is almost always painful, and Jorge will be no exception.

References for Sabathia’s next contract

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Barring something completely unforeseen, CC Sabathia will opt out of his contract with the Yankees a few days after the end of the World Series. That doesn’t mean he hates New York or anything like that, it’s just a smart business move on his part. We’d all do the same thing. The Yankees will undoubtedly try to re-sign their ace, though the intensity of their pursuit and the number of other teams that get involved remains to be seen.

Contracts for elite players like Sabathia are difficult to predict because there are so few comparables out there. Sabathia already holds the record for the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, but it’s tough to see him topping the original seven-year, $161M deal he signed prior to the 2009. I see four points of reference for Sabathia’s new contract, at least four “major” points of reference. Let’s recap…

Four-years, $92M

This is what is left on Sabathia’s current contract, the money he is leaving on the table by opting out. Obviously he and his agent believe they can find more than this on the open market (assuming they opt out), and they’re almost certainly right. In a perfect world, CC would just not opt-out and stick around under the terms of his usual agreement, the right amount of years and dollars from the team’s perspective.

Five-years, $120M

When Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees and went back to Philadelphia, this is the guaranteed contract he took from the Phillies. There’s a vesting option for a sixth year, but we’re only concerned about guaranteed dollars at this point in time. Options and buyouts can be manipulated to do anything. I figure the negotiations for Sabathia’s new contract start here, since he’s still younger than Lee was last winter and has a much longer track record of success and durability.

Six-years, $132M

According to Jerry Crasnick, this was the Yankees’ final offer to Lee last winter. Again, this is guaranteed money only. If they were willing to go that far for a guy that hadn’t done anything for them, shouldn’t they be willing to do at least that for a comparable pitcher that’s already helped them win a World Series? I’m sure Sabathia and his agent will play that card, I know I would.

Seven-years, $161M

As I said earlier, this is contract Sabathia is already working under, the largest ever for a pitcher. I can’t imagine he’ll get this many years or this many dollars this time around, but stranger things have happened.

* * *

These are just reference points for Sabathia’s next deal, I’m not saying he’ll get exactly that amount for exactly that many years. I’d love love love if he’d take the five-year, $120M package, but I suspect it’ll end up being closer to the six-year, $132M deal. That’s not based on anything, just a hunch. Who knows, maybe he’ll surprise everyone and stick around. I wouldn’t hold my breath though. Anyway, a post like this is screaming for a poll, so let’s do it.

What would be the largest contract you'd offer Sabathia this offseason?
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The Expensive Luxury will return

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Brian Cashman didn’t want Rafael Soriano, and frankly, the Yankees didn’t really need him. Ownership, or more accurately team president Randy Levine, wanted Soriano after losing out on Cliff Lee and various other free agent pitchers, and he who signs the checks makes the rules. Soriano agreed to a three-year contract worth $35M in mid-January, and the Yankees had themselves a shiny new eighth inning toy. A few month later, the right-hander was out with an elbow problem and eventually relegated to seventh inning worth.

Andrew Marchand reported on Wednesday that no, Soriano will not opt out of the two years and $25M left on his contract. The move isn’t official, but I’m not sure if something like this is ever officially reported anyway. Marchand just told us what we already knew though. There’s almost no chance Soriano would get that kind of cash on the open market after dealing with more injury troubles in 2011, so even if he’s unhappy, there’s a financial incentive to stay in New York. We’ve all been stuck at jobs we didn’t like, this isn’t much different.

I didn’t like the contract and chances are you didn’t like the contract either. There’s so little chance of a middle reliever being worth that kind of money; it basically takes optimal usage and the highest of high-leverage spots each time out, something no manager in history ever does. Soriano is overpaid, yes, but he’s not useless. He was pretty good in the ALDS for one, and the Yankees have to expect David Robertson‘s performance to decline next year just because relief pitchers never repeat seasons like that. That doesn’t mean Robertson will be bad in 2012, he just won’t be as amazing as he was in 2011. Soriano provides some high-end insurance.

At the end of the day, Soriano is luxury pretty much no other team can afford, and he’ll continue to be one next year. The Yankees didn’t need a new eighth inning guy … heck, they didn’t even need a new seventh inning guy, but they got one anyway simply because they can. They had the money to spend so they spent it on the biggest name left on the market, even if he was a square peg forced into a round hole.

Noesi roughed up in winter ball debut

The 2011 MiLBY Awards are out, and you can vote for the various categories by clicking the link and sorting through the tabs. A few Yankees farmhands are up for awards, including Mason Williams (Best Short Season Hitter), Ryan Flannery (Best High-A Reliever), Branden Pinder (Best Short Season Reliever), and Abe Almonte (Best High-A Game). Voting ends tomorrow.

In other news, Marty Caswell reports that Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar interviewed for the Padres vacant hitting coach position today. Wynegar has been coaching Yankees minor leagues since 2008, I believe.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (11-10 loss to Scottsdale in ten innings) Tuesday’s game
Corban Joseph, 2B: 3 for 6, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 E (throwing, missed catch) – three errors in nine games, a Nunezian pace
Rob Segedin, LF: 0 for 4, 1 R, 2 BB, 2 K
Dan Burawa, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HB, 1-0 GB/FB – 26 of 47 pitches were strikes (55.3%)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 2-0 GB/FB – ten of 17 pitches were strikes (58.8%)

DWL Licey (9-4 loss to Toros) Tuesday’s game
Hector Noesi, RHP: 1.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3-1 GB/FB – he’s on a strict pitch count while pitching out of Licey’s rotation … hopefully he’s just shaking off some rust after not pitching for about three weeks … I usually update all the Caribbean leagues on Sundays, but Noesi’s important enough for mid-week updates whenever he starts

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (6-3 loss to Peoria) Wednesday’s game
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 4, 1 K
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B – broke up the no-hitter with a fifth inning single
David Phelps, RHP: 3.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 4-1 GB/FB – 49 of 75 pitches were strikes (65.3%) … the desert hasn’t been kind to him so far, but at least he got stretched out to 75 pitches this time
Chase Whitley, RHP: 2.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 19 of 31 pitches were strikes (61.3%)

Open Thread: World Series Game One

Damn hippies. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

So, who ya got? I’m thinking Rangers is seven. I don’t think they’ll run away with it mostly because the middle of the Cardinals order won’t flail at the same junk off the plate like the non-Miggy Tigers hitters did in the ALCS, and that alone will keep them in games. It’s worth mentioning that three of Texas’ four starters are left-handed, and that will neutralize a big bat in Lance Berkman. Octavio Dotel will be pretty important because he destroys righties and outside of Josh Hamilton, all of Texas’ big bats are right-handed. I’m just hoping for good games more than anything, no lopsided blowouts please.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the night. Game One of the 2011 World Series starts at 8pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and the weather in St. Louis

The Biggest Hit of the Season

Earlier this morning I listed the five biggest hits of the Yankees season using WPA, but I think we all know that isn’t a perfect metric. It’s great for reference but has little analytical value because it lacks context. Context in terms of who is batting, who is pitching, the team’s place in the standings, so on and so forth. The biggest hit of the Yankees season, or at least what I think was the biggest hit of the Yankees season, didn’t make this morning’s list.

Let’s set the stage. The calender had just flipped to September, and there was much rejoicing because Jesus Montero was finally a big leaguer. The Yankees were in Fenway Park and were one game back of the almighty Red Sox in the loss column, having closed the gap in the AL East from two games to half-a-game over the four previous days. We had no idea the Sox were in full collapse mode at the time, and this game was one New York really needed if they were serious about winning the division.

The Yankees scored one-run off Jon Lester in the first inning, but it could have been more had Montero not struck out with the bases loaded in his first career at-bat. Boston scored a pair of runs off A.J. Burnett in the fourth inning on a Dustin Pedroia homer to dead center, and the score remained 2-1 into the seventh inning. Former Yankee Al Aceves was on the mound was on the mound for the Sox, having just pitched around two singles, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch the inning prior.

The seventh inning started with a six-pitch strikeout by Nick Swisher, but Andruw Jones got the party started by drawing a one-out walk after a 14-pitch at-bat, the second longest plate appearance of the Yankees season. In came pinch-runner Chris Dickerson, who moved to second after Aceves hit Montero with a pitch. That’s what the box score says, but in reality the pitch just grazed the front of his jersey. The Yankees needed baserunners at the time, so they were taking them any way they could. After 42 pitches and four outs, Aceves was done and Daniel Bard marched out of the bullpen.

(click to embiggen)

Russell Martin was up next, having singled to left last time up after a ground out and strikeout in his first two at-bats. Bard was not messing around, starting Martin off with two sliders down and away for two quick swings and misses. The Yankees’ catcher was already down in the count 0-2, and he had yet to see the triple-digit heat. Bard’s third pitch was a 97 mph fastball up for ball one, the fourth pitch a 98 mph fastball just off the plate for ball two. I remember watching that pitch on television and wondering how in the world he laid off it. The fifth pitch was another 98 mph fastball, this one well outside for another ball. Just getting the count back full after falling into an 0-2 hole against a dominant power pitcher was a minor miracle.

The fastball wasn’t working, so Bard went back to the down and away slider. Martin fouled it off to stay alive, stretching the at-bat to at least seven pitches. The next pitch, a 97 mph heater was a mistake pitch up the zone, but that’s the point of working the count. The more pitches a pitcher has to throw in an at-bat, the more likely he is to make a mistake. Martin jumped all over the pitch, driving it into the right-center field gap. Both Dickerson and Montero were running on the 3-2 pitch, perhaps to avoid the double play, and both came around to score. Martin doubled but it was effectively a triple because he took third on the throw to the plate.

The hit, which registered at +0.37 WPA, turned that 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. Eric Chavez pinch-hit for Eduardo Nunez one batter later and drove in Martin for an all-important insurance run, but that’s almost an afterthought. Martin’s hit gave his team the lead and completely silenced the Fenway crowd, a crowd that came to the park knowing the Sox were 11-3 against the Yankees at that point of the season. That record didn’t matter though, because a few innings later, after Mariano Rivera froze Adrian Gonzalez with a cutter for strike three, the two teams were tied atop the division.

The Yankees never looked back after that. They took over sole possession of the AL East three days later with a win over the Blue Jays, and they did nothing but increase that lead the rest of the way. The Red Sox spiraled into a tailspin in September, losing 19 of their final 26 games to complete The Collapse. Martin’s go-ahead double on that Thursday evening in New England didn’t start the fall of the Red Sox, but I sure love pretending it did. That one swing seemed to change everything for both teams.