Mailbag: CarGo, Defense, Lee, Ichiro

Got five questions for you this week. Make sure you use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us mailbag questions or anything else at any time.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Biggie asks: Joel Sherman wrote an article about how the Rockies would benefit from trading Carlos Gonzalez, who after this year has five years around $73M left on his deal. I know Sherman was reaching, but what would it take to land the talented CarGon? He would look great in Yankee pinstripes and cost, per year, about the same as Nick Swisher.

Gonzalez is a star of the first order, a career .384 wOBA hitter with base-stealing skills (career 76-for-94, 80.4%) and average defense in the outfield. Yes, he has a massive home/road split — .432/.332 wOBAs — but I don’t believe his true offensive talent is essentially Denard Span or Will Venable outside of Coors Field. Plus if you put him in New York and Yankee Stadium, he’d still have the ballpark going for him. CarGo isn’t quite Carlos Beltran circa 2005, but he’s not all that far off.

Anyway, Gonzalez would be a perfect fit for the Yankees as a young (27 in October), left-handed hitting outfielder that is under contract for the next five seasons at a below market rate ($11.4M average annual value/luxury tax hit). The Yankees targeted Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson for similar reasons in recent years, but CarGo is a better player. The problem is that I don’t think the Yankees have the pieces to get him, unless they’re willing to part with Ivan Nova. The Rockies need pitching in the worst way and I highly doubt David Phelps, Adam Warren, or the injured Manny Banuelos will grab their attention, ditto the Low-A kids who are years away from the bigs. If we knew Michael Pineda was going to be fine going forward, then sure include Nova in a potential package. Obviously we don’t, however.

Chris asks: How have the Yankees defensive metrics been this year? It seems like missing Brett Gardner in left field hasn’t been that big of a deal. Are they average, above or below compared to everyone else and how are they doing compared to last year’s team?

As a team, the Yankees rank 26th in UZR (-14.4) and 20th in DRS (-12), so they’ve been a bad defensive team so far this year. Obviously you have to take defensive stats with a massive grain of salt this year early in the season, so keep that in mind. I think the Yankees get consistently elite defense from only one position on the field and it’s (arguably) the least important: first base. I consider Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Alex Rodriguez to be average at their positions, Cano a bit above average at second, and both Raul Ibanez and Derek Jeter well below average at their positions. Ranking in the bottom third of the league defensively certainly passes the sniff test.

The advanced stats were split on New York last year, ranking them top ten in UZR (+23.2) and nearly bottom ten in DRS (-12). Pick your poison here. I think they were probably in the middle, an average defensive club overall with most of that due to Gardner running everything down. For a quick and dirty look at a team’s defensive performance, just use 1-BABIP. The Yankees are at .703, so right now three out of every ten balls put in play off the team’s pitchers are falling in for hits. That’s one of the worst marks in the game (21st). The Yankees had a pretty good defensive club last year and the year before, but I definitely think it’s fair to say they’ve taken a step back this year, with or without Gardner.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Alec asks: Mike, since the day the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee, what kind of pitcher has he been? Do you think he has been earning him money or is it a blessing in disguise that he wanted to go to Philly?

Oh no, this isn’t a blessing in disguise. Lee has continued to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball since the start of last season, right on par with the guy he was before hitting free agency. You can’t look at his win total (zero!) this year and draw any conclusions from that, Lee’s been absolutely stellar for the Phillies…

ERA K% BB% HR% fWAR/200 IP bWAR/200 IP
2008-2010 2.98 19.8% 3.5% 1.7% 6.3 4.9
2011-2012 2.67 25.8% 4.6% 2.2% 5.5 6.4

Yeah, he’s been pretty fantastic. We could spend all day playing the What If Game had the Yankees signed Lee — Jesus Montero is never traded, Nova is never given a real chance, etc. — but the only thing know for sure is that the guy was a brilliant pitcher before signing his megacontract and he has continued to be a brilliant pitcher since.

Mike asks: What would you think of the idea of trading for Ichiro or signing him in the offseason? He’s nothing like the Ichiro of old, but could still be a ok half of a platoon split for a stop gap RF next year or feel in while Gardner is out.

Since the start of last season, a span of 1,023 plate appearances, Ichiro is a .269/.303/.347 hitter. That includes a .264/.288/.375 batting line in 302 plate appearances this year. At 38 years old. There should be alarms going off in your head. Hitters that old who see their performance decline that much are most likely done being effective big leaguers. The odds of Ichiro rebounding next year (in any uniform) are tiny, miniscule compared to the odds of him getting worse. I know he’s a brand name and all that, but I can’t see any way a contending team could add Ichiro, play him full-time, and expect to improve their club. This is just … no.

Hanks asks: Here’s a question I’ve had on my mind for a while. We’ve been spoiled by over 15 years of winning teams, and there appears to be no end in sight. Surely “what goes up must come down” and at some point the Yankees will go through a long stretch where they are bottom dwellers. But, I just can’t envision how that would happen – it seems like they are primed to keep on winning indefinitely. Given the current landscape of the league can you describe a scenario that would see the end of this great run?

The easy answer would be to say it’ll happen when all of their older and higher priced players all collapse at the same time, but it’s not that simple. Sure, the Yankees are locked into CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez for all eternity, but they’ll have the opportunity to change their second base, catcher, and two of three outfield situations in the next 18 months. That’s just the offense. Ivan Nova gives the team some long-term youth in the rotation and the one-year deals for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte give them a lot of flexibility.

For the Yankees to have a true collapse and go into a long stretch of suckiness, a lot of their younger and prime years players are going to have to drastically under-perform while the old guys start playing like real old guys. They have the money to cover up the typical year-to-year injuries and player evaluation mistakes, so it’ll take a whole bunch of them at one time. Maybe I’m just biased, but I think situations like 2008 — missing the postseason for one year before getting right back to contending the next year — is “bottom dwelling” for the Yankees. Given how the team is built right now, it’s really hard to see how they’ll be non-competitive over multiple, consecutive seasons.

Kevin Long talks about Melky Cabrera, superstar

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

As you know, former Yankee Melky Cabrera has been one of the very best players in all of baseball this season. He’s hitting .363/.399/.532 with a league-leading 101 hits for the Giants, resulting in 3.0 fWAR and a .401 wOBA that rank 10th and 14th in MLB, respectively. Melky broke out with the Royals last season — .349 wOBA and 4.2 fWAR — but he’s taken his game to another level in 2012.

Cabrera’s career was basically left for dead after 2010, when he was literally the worst player in baseball (-1.0 fWAR) before being released by the Braves. Melky was never a great player for the Yankees but he wasn’t terrible, just a useful fourth outfielder that often played full-time. Getting cut by Atlanta seems to have been the wake-up call he needed to start taking his career seriously, as hitting coach Kevin Long indicated to Joel Sherman

“He’s a hell of a player,” said Long. “He has totally gotten committed to his career. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t take anything for granted any more. His personal trainer is with him all the time. When you go all in and have talent, this is what happens — and it is evident he has the talent.

“If Melky committed himself to the Yankees as he does now, he would still be a Yankee,” added Long. “And he would say the same thing. He made himself tradeable then.”

Just do a simple Google Images search of “Melky Cabrera Braves” and compare it to “Melky Cabrera Giants” and the difference is obvious. Melky was fat in Atlanta, fatter than he ever was in New York. Maybe it had to do with the huge ($3.1M) arbitration award he received that winter; he just got a little too comfortable or something. I dunno, whatever. Now? He’s not fat. Not even close. He appears to have rededicated himself to baseball after being released and is going to be rewarded with a monster contract after this season.

The Yankees could sure use Melky right now given Brett Gardner‘s injury but so could every team in baseball. He’s been that good, a star-caliber hitter for over 1,000 plate appearances now. Had he not been traded to the Braves three offseasons ago, there’s a very real chance he would not have developed into the player he is today though. Getting traded away by the team that signed and developed you and then getting released is often the worst moment of a player’s career, but it appears to have been a blessing for the Melkman.

Bleich returns to action in GCL near no-hitter

Make sure you check out Pinstriped Prospects. The site just launched but they’ve got news, video, photos, and more for all levels of the farm system. Needless to say, it’s worth a bookmark.

Triple-A Empire State (11-6 loss to Louisville)
LF Chris Dickerson: 1-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 E (throwing) — threw a runner out at second … 11 doubles in 17 games this year
2B Corban Joseph: 1-3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 2 BB
C Frankie Cervelli: 2-5, 2 R
DH Jack Cust: 1-5, 1 R, 1 2B
1B Russell Branyan: 1-4, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K — 17/20 K/BB in 22 games this year
RF Kevin Russo: 3-4, 3 RBI, 1 BB
3B Brandon Laird: 0-5
CF Colin Curtis: 0-2, 2 BB, 1 K
SS Ramiro Pena: 0-4, 2 K
RHP D.J. Mitchell: 2 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 Balk, 3/1 GB/FB — only 31 of 63 pitches were strikes (49.2%) … good gravy man, they’re not going to call you back up when you’re pitching like this
LHP Mike O’Connor: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1/3 GB/FB — 32 of 51 pitches were strikes (62.7%)
RHP Manny Delcarmen: 1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 17 of 29 pitches were strikes (58.6%)
RHP Jason Bulger: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 2/2 GB/FB — 25 of 42 pitches were strikes (59.5%)

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Thursday Night Open Thread

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The city is brutal when the temperature starts to flirt with triple-digits. The crowded subway platforms are just gross, the streets are filled with that lovely hot garbage stench, and ConEd is cutting back on the voltage so even if you wanted to blast the air conditioner, you can’t. It’s rough, but thankfully it’s supposed to cool off a bit tomorrow and into the weekend. The Yankees got lucky having today off, this heat can be a killer.

Anyway, here is your open thread for this evening. Game Five of the NBA Finals is on tonight (9pm ET on ABC), plus MLB Network is showing the Red Sox and Marlins at 7pm ET (Zambrano vs. Dice-K). You folks know what do here, so have at it.

Tyler Austin to represent Yankees at Futures Game

Rosters for the 2012 Futures Game were released today (USA, World), and the only Yankees farmhand headed to Kansas City is OF Tyler Austin. The eligibility rules are quirky but I believe every club gets at least one representative but no more than two, except for the host team. That’s why three Royals were selected for the game. I thought C Gary Sanchez had a pretty strong chance of being selected, but alas.

Austin, 20, has been the farm system’s MVP this season and it’s not particularly close. He has a league-leading 14 homers with Low-A Charleston this year, and he also leads the South Atlantic League with a .475 wOBA (by 30 points), a 188 wRC+ (18 points), and a .319 ISO (52 (!) points). The actual game will be played the Sunday before the All-Star Game next month.

40 Days Until the Deadline: Yanks Watching Wandy

(Thearon W. Henderson)

At last year’s trade deadline the Yankees, as we all expected, explored essentially every available pitcher. After failing to significantly upgrade the rotation during the winter, and especially after losing Phil Hughes early in the season, they had little choice. The need for pitching immediately connected them to Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez. With an ownership change inevitable, the Astros were in firesale mode. But even with speculation of a deal to the Yankees lasting right up until 4 p.m. last July 31st, nothing happened. Might 2012 be better timing for the Yankees?

There was a time last year when I really did think Rodriguez would end up with the Yankees. He was slated to become a free agent after the 2011 season, making it a near lock that the Astros would trade him. But in late January then-GM Ed Wade surprised everyone by signing Rodriguez to a three-year, $34 million extension. That did cover 2011, but it also contained a $13 million option for 2014, which 1) could be guaranteed based on performance, and 2) becomes a player option if he’s traded.

With that one move the chances of Rodriguez becoming a Yankee plummeted. Given his performances from 2008 through 2010, the contract itself might have seemed reasonable. It ran through his age-34 season, age-35 if the option vested. And it was for a relatively reasonable salary. But what makes sense for the Astros doesn’t necessarily make sense for other teams in the league. Picking up Rodriguez knowing that his 2014 option will essentially become guaranteed is far less attractive than renting him for a half a season.

Still, the Yankees are looking under every rock for possible upgrades. As we heard yesterday, the Yankees were among a handful of teams present for Rodriguez’s performance against the Royals this week. It doesn’t mean much at this very moment, but if the Yankees do need a starter come July, Rodriguez might be one of the more attractive names available.

Last year the two sides reportedly could not agree on how much money the Astros would absorb in a trade. Sensing the Astros’ desperation to move his contract, the Yankees wanted them to pick up a significant portion. Yet the Astros were not quite that desperate, and ended up holding onto Rodriguez. With a year less of service time to offer, the price on Rodriguez has likely come down from last year. Then again, there is a new owner and front office in place, and their goals might differ from the departing owner and lame duck GM that ran the show last July.

For his part, Rodriguez has pitched well in 2012. His strikeout rate is down enormously, but then so is his walk rate. The net is a 2.77 K/BB ratio that stands a bit above his 2.4 career average. Yes, he does pitch in the NL Central, but that doesn’t mean he’s avoiding the league’s best hitters. In fact, Rodriguez has the 17th highest quality of opponents’ OPS in the league (minimum 50 IP). The Yankee who has faced the toughest opponents this year is CC Sabathia, who ranks 59th. So while Rodriguez’s performances might be undersold because of where he pitches, he’s still facing tougher hitters than any Yankee starter, despite facing the pitcher every ninth batter.

Given the Yankees’ goal of a $189 million payroll for 2014, it’s unlikely they pick up any pitcher who has a contract that will cost them that year. Then again, he does only net $11.5 million in 2014 ($13 mil salary minus $2.5 million buyout). Perhaps he would opt to test the market at age 36, hoping for a two-year deal that will boost his guaranteed earnings. But then again, it’s unlikely the Yankees would bank on that, especially with him moving to the tougher league.

Why can’t Hughes put away batters after getting ahead?

This pitch probably resulted in a homer. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Big ups to Moshe Mandel for coming up with the foundation for this article.

With his four home runs surrendered yesterday, Phil Hughes sits behind only Jason Vargas for the MLB lead in home runs allowed. Of course, Vargas has pitched 24 more innings, so Hughes has the lead in home runs allowed per nine innings pitched (2.18). This wouldn’t be so surprising if it weren’t for Hughes’s other peripheral statistics.

Hughes has both a low walk rate and a relatively high strikeout rate. While he’s not fanning batters at a Strasburgian rate, he still ranks 7th out of 47 qualified AL starters in strikeout rate. At the same time he’s shown good control, ranking 14th lowest in walk rate. That’s good for a 3.85 K/BB ratio, which ranks fourth in the AL. How is someone dominant enough to strike out more than his share of hitters, while at the same time showing enough control to avoid giving them free passes, manage to allow so many home runs?

Losing while ahead

One result of Hughes’s control is that he often works ahead in the count. He has faced 341 hitters this year, of which 83 have gone to an 0-2 count. That’s 24.3 percent of all hitters he’s faced. The AL average is just 19.3 percent of all PA. Yet hitters have had a field day once they’re this far behind. The average AL hitter has a .166 BA and .250 SLG in PA when they’ve seen an 0-2 count. In PA when Hughes has gotten ahead 0-2 hitters have a .253 BA and .494 SLG. Even worse, when the count is 0-2 AL hitters have a .146 BA and .222 SLG. Against Hughes with an 0-2 count they have a .294 BA and — I’m not even kidding — a .618 SLG. When Hughes is ahead in the count, opponents have hit .236/.242/.394 against him. The average AL pitcher holds opponents to a .201/.210/.300 line while ahead.

Fastball heavy

Unsurprisingly, Hughes ranks near the top of the leader boards in fastball percentage. He’s used his for more than two-thirds of his overall pitches. That does not include his cutter usage. The names ahead of him are all known for the movement on their fastballs. Bartolo Colon has the two-seamer we loved last year. Justin Masterson, Rick Porcello, and Henderson Alvarez get ground balls due to the sinking action on their fastballs. Matt Moore does have a two-seamer. Yet Hughes throws a relatively straight four-seamer.

It is unsurprising, then, that Hughes has allowed 12 of his 19 home runs on the fastball. That’s 63 percent, which is slightly below his fastball usage rate, but given the sample size it’s close enough. At the same time, Hughes has used the fastball as a swing and miss weapon. Before yesterday’s game batters missed once every five swings. It’s clear that while seemingly straight, Hughes’s fastball can sneak up on a batter and cause him to swing and miss. It is easily his best pitch.

Cutting out what doesn’t work

After giving up many long balls early in the season, Hughes did make an adjustment. He had been throwing his cutter, but it wasn’t an effective weapon. He threw it 62 times, and three times batters took it out of the park. That looks even worse when we see that batters swung at it only 26 times. That’s more than one in 10 swings resulting in a home run. The cutter just wasn’t working.

Hughes threw the cutter 47 times in April, but only 15 in May. It’s pretty clear that he cut it out at some point during that month, because he hasn’t thrown it once in June. That happens to coincide with his string of very good starts, yesterday excluded. In fact, before yesterday he’d given up just one home run on his fastball in June, of 244 pitches and 130 swings. Unfortunately, he did surrender three homers on the fastball yesterday.

Trying something different

Yankees’ pro scouting manager Will Kuntz noted two changes in Hughes’s secondary arsenal, aside from scrapping the cutter. “He’s using his curveball as a first pitch,” says Kuntz. Second, Kuntz says that he changed his grip on his changeup recently — before a start against Kansas City, he estimates. “It’s a great pitch for him,” says Kuntz. “He’s getting more comfortable with it.”

Hughes’s adaptation to his fastball, curve, changeup arsenal might take some time. He had indeed worked on a changeup in spring training, and did try to work it into his arsenal. He threw it 12 percent of the time in April and May. He’s throwing it about half as frequently in June. He was at six percent coming into yesterday’s game, and threw the changeup just six of 83 pitches yesterday. Getting comfortable with it, it seems, is a process.

Hughes did ramp up his curveball usage from April, 12 percent, to May, 21 percent. Yet in June that had dropped to 16 percent going into yesterday’s game. In a way that makes sense. As Kuntz said, he’s using it more early in the count, setting up his fastball. We saw how frequently Hughes works ahead of hitters. If he’s using his fastball as his biggest attack weapon, it does seem that he’d be throwing it more frequently than before (when he was presumably trying to use his curve as a weapon to finish off hitters).

Yesterday, however, Hughes went curveball heavy, throwing it 31 times (37.3 percent). Six of the 19 batters he faced saw it as a first pitch. Nine times he threw it with an even count, and just four times he threw it when behind in the count. I’m honestly not sure what this amounts to, but it’s interesting that he increased his curveball usage in a start where his average fastball was stuck in the low 90s in the first few innings. He didn’t hit 94 until the fourth, and then only twice. It was mostly 91 to 92 on the day.

Still no explanation

While there is plenty of information here, it still doesn’t paint a clear picture of why Hughes’s results line up as they do. “Some guys are wild in the zone,” says Kuntz. “It’s a matter of command, usually. They’re supposed to be down and away.” So Hughes can keep it around the zone, but not necessarily where he wants it in the zone. When he hits, then, it’s a whiff. When he misses, he might not get the ball back.

Kuntz also spoke of Hughes’s bulldog mentality. We’ve heard this term used to describe many pitchers. RAB readers will remember that those who favored Joba Chamberlain pitching out of the pen often cited his bulldog mentality. What does that mean for Hughes, though? Does it mean that he attacks too hard when ahead in the count and is therefore more prone to mistakes? Does it mean that he’s better fit for the bullpen, where he can really unleash his fastball and need only one other pitch?

It’s difficult for experienced members of the Yankees’ organization to answer this question, let alone you or me. Hughes is, by statistical standards, turning in a unique season. Looking at all pitchers with at least 50 IP from 1901 to 2012, only three other pitchers have had a K/BB ratio of 3.5 or greater, with a HR/9 of 2.0 or greater. The other three aren’t exactly power pitchers, though. If we look at pitchers with a K/9 of more than 8.5 per nine and a BB/9 of lower than 2.5 per nine, Hughes stands alone. Yes, using a mere 50 IP qualifier, he is the only pitcher in modern history to feature his current statistical profile.

Maybe this is why he’ll continue to get chances. He clearly has good stuff. He’s shown signs of life at times. And no one can really explain what’s going on. Hughes is really in a world of his own right now.