2012 Season Preview: Part-Time Help

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

Via Reuters Pictures

A full-time DH is something we’ve grown accustomed to. From Jason Giambi to Hideki Matsui to Nick Johnson to Jorge Posada, the Yankees have entered each of the previous six seasons with a guy whose only job was to hit. Yet in recent years those plans have gone awry. Last year Posada became a platoon player when his futility as a right-handed hitter became evident. Johnson got hurt within the first month of 2010. Matsui missed 63 games in 2008 with knee troubles. Giambi’s injury history runs pages, including a big chunk of the 2007 season.

This year, they’re trying something different. While they brought in Raul Ibanez, he’s by no means the full-time DH. He’ll fill a platoon role, taking reps mostly against right-handed pitchers. Against lefties, however, not only will Ibanez sit, but the lineup as a whole could see some interesting changes. The Yankees can afford to do this, because they’ve employed useful part-time players. They should make the Yankees more flexible in 2012.

Raul Ibanez

For most of the off-season, the idea of Raul Ibanez on the Yankees wasn’t even considered. They already had a full outfield plus a DH, and a reunion with Andruw Jones seemed probable. Combine that with Ibanez’s poor 2011 season, at age 39, and the idea was a complete non-starter. That is, until the Yankees swapped their young DH for a young pitcher. That opened up a roster spot, which started the discussion about which left-handed bat would best fit. From the start, though, the Yanks had their eye on Ibanez.

The hope, apparently, is not only that he can bounce back at age 40, but also that a role that pits him primarily against right-handers will help bolster his production. After all, from 2001 through 2010 his OBP never dipped below .342 against right-handed pitchers, and his SLG never dipped below .442. In 2010 he hit .277/.366/.455 against righties. Still, his numbers last year, .256/.307/.440 in 402 at-bats, don’t bode well for his future. Not for a guy who turns 40 in early June.

Still, in Ibanez the Yankees have a low-cost option to whom no one is attached. That is, if he pulls a Randy Winn the Yankees can simply give him the Randy Winn treatment, DFAing him in May if it comes to that. (And who knows, by that point Johnny Damon might still be available.) Given his age and performance, it’s tough to expect much from him.

Andruw Jones

Last year, it appeared that Jones was on his way to being 2011’s Winn. In 2009 and 2010 Jones started strong, but his production started to dip in May. In 2011 he never even got that head start. By the All-Star break he was hitting .195/.278/.356 in 97 PA. The lack of production combined with the minimal playing time portended an imminent release — perhaps after the Yankees acquired a replacement on the trade market.

Jones made some adjustments, thanks to a call from his mom, and tore through the second half. He started 31 games, got into 41, and hit .291/.416/.612 in 126 PA. This year he’s back, as he says, to take someone’s job. That could come in handy, should Ibanez falter.

It’s tough to set reasonable expectations for Jones at this point. His numbers started to decline precipitously at age 30, after he he produced two of his best-ever offensive seasons at ages 28 and 29. But his numbers have been back on the rise as he enters his mid-30s. By all accounts he’s a man on a mission, trimmer than ever and ready to go with a repaired left knee. Even if he is healthy and ready, can his performance scale? He had only 222 PA last year. How will he fare with double that?

Eduardo Nunez

It seems that the biggest controversies arise over part-time players. Is Eduardo Nunez a future starter? Is he inadequate, given his defensive miscues, for even a reserve role? Yankees fans debate Nunez far more than his playing time warrants. In his current role of backup middle infielder, he suffices. He’s not without his shortcomings, but that’s precisely why he’s a reserve.

With both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez spending time on the DL last year, Nunez did get a fair share of playing time, 338 PA in 112 games. In that time he predictably produced below-average numbers, though not horribly so; a .265/.313/.385 line amounted to an 84 OPS+. He showed some pop at times, socking over 30 percent of his hits for extra bases. Some improvement, both on offense and defense, in his age-25 season, could go a long way.

The only issue for Nunez is the same one he had last year: playing time. A big chunk of his playing time came during two spans: first when Jeter was on the DL, and then when Rodriguez was on the DL and Eric Chavez had not returned. His biggest opportunity for playing time could come against left-handed pitching. If Jones is in for Brett Gardner in left, that still leaves the DH spot vacant. Rodriguez, or even Jeter on occasion, could slide into the DH spot, leaving some playing time for Nunez.

Eric Chavez

The Yankees enjoyed Chavez’s presence last year, enough so that they brought him back when it seems fairly unnecessary. During the winter the Yankees talked about getting Nunez more playing time, but Chavez only eats into that. While he does provide a left-handed look off the bench, something they might not have if Ibanez has been in the lineup that day, his overall role remains difficult to decipher.

Basically, Chavez’s role is Rodriguez insurance. If he needs days off against righties, then maybe Chavez gets more playing time. But how many days off is Rodriguez really going to get if he’s healthy? It seems, then, that Chavez is there in case Rodriguez gets hurt — which is not an ideal role for him, since he himself gets hurt frequently enough. He might be a nice player to have around, but it’s hard to envision his role on the 2012 Yankees.

Francisco Cervelli

Cervelli is what he is: a backup catcher. There’s really not much more to say than that. He has some defensive issues, sure. Just as he over-exaggerates his fist pumps, he over-exaggerates his pitch framing. He’s not very proficient at picking off base runners. But he’s not quite a terrible hitter. In 2010, pressed into semi-regular duty, he hit .271/.359/.335. In 2011, as Russell Martin‘s primary backup, he hit .266/.324/.395. Those aren’t standout numbers, but they’re only slightly below average. Many, if not most, teams wish they had a backup catcher who could produce that kind offense.

* * *

In the last few years we’ve seen the Yankees put a greater emphasis on their bench. This allows them to be a bit more flexible. It affords veterans days off without the team losing too much production. It also allows them to use players in their optimal roles. That is, they can platoon players who need it, because they have a complementary player. Given the general state of the Yankees’ starting offense, the bench might make only a one- or two-win difference in any given year. But in the dogfight that is the AL East, that can play a large role in the end-of-year standings — even more so now that winning the division is that much more important.

Like Daisuke, only good

“Blame Rob Neyer for sending me on this quest, and blame me for most of the confusion over the last few years regarding the gyroball. To answer the most popular questions: Yes, it exists; yes, Daisuke Matsuzaka throws it; yes, I can teach it. That’s just half the story, and the rest is so much more interesting…

One final note on Matsuzaka: the gyroball is really irrelevant when discussing his talent. He has a plus fastball, plus breaking ball, and plus-plus change, which appears to be a forkball. He pitches aggressively with good velocity, movement, and command on all his pitches. He has an innate sense for keeping a batter off the ball, varying his pitches with no discernible sequence. While he tends to use the change as his out pitch, he’ll use any pitch at any count in any situation to any batter. I compared Matsuzaka to Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson due to their demeanor on the mound and their body types, but Clay Davenport’s statistical comparison to Roger Clemens surprised me. The more I think about it, though, the more it holds true. Both are fearless and when standing on the mound–they own the game.”

— Will Carroll, November 15, 2006.

You don’t need me to tell you the sad story of Daisuke Matsuzaka. You know all about the posting fee and the contract, the fabled gyroball that Matsuzaka does not throw, the feuds with management and his difficulty adjusting to American baseball. The Daisuke Matsuzaka story is one we all know and one we all reference when demonstrating the perils of importing Japanese pitchers to Major League Baseball. Yet some five years after the Yankees were outbid by Matsuzaka and watched him go to their biggest rival amid great fanfare only to see him disappoint, they landed their own import, albeit one who came to America four years ago. Kuroda had been watching, observing Daisuke’s transition before deciding himself to come to the United States one year after Matsuzaka. Daniel Barbarisi had the story in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal:

 “At the time, [Hiroki Kuroda] was weighing coming to the United States himself, after pitching 11 years in Japan. He saw the initial success Matsuzaka had and decided that he, too, could make the jump overseas.

“Because he was the best pitcher at the time, and everyone thought, well, if he doesn’t succeed in the States, then no one’s going to succeed in the States. So it obviously had a big impact on my decision to come to the States.”

The two men had chatted in Japan and got to know each other better as teammates prepping for the 2006 World Baseball Classic. At the time, Matsuzaka was the best pitcher in Japan, and his name was on everyone’s lips as he considered coming to America to pitch. Kuroda was a good starter in Nippon Professional Baseball, but not a star on Matsuzaka’s level.”

As Barbarisi goes on to tell, the tables have been turned. Most observers would agree that Daisuke’s career has been a disappointment, certainly if judged against the outrageous hype heaped upon him prior to his arrival. But even by most objective measures, Matsuzaka hasn’t exactly been superb. He has constantly struggled to stay healthy, perhaps a product of the difficulty adjusting to pitching every five days. He’s only stayed off the disabled list one season in his career, and last summer he underwent Tommy John surgery. When he was healthy he wasn’t spectacular, going 49-30 over 105 starts. He’s thrown 622 innings of 4.25 ERA ball, a number that matches neatly with his 4.26 FIP. Those are mid-rotation numbers, not sort of numbers one pays over $100 million for over 6 years. They’re certainly not the sort of numbers one sees from Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt, or Roger Clemens.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem as if the level of disappointment surrounding Matsuzaka has ever been commensurate with the level of surprise over what Kuroda has been able to bring to the table. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s pitched on the West Coast and saw the playoffs only twice or maybe it’s his age and the fact that he came from a far less renowned Japanese team, but the hype surrounding Kuroda never came close to sniffing Daisuke mania. Check out this prescient scouting report from Mike Plugh exactly one year after Carroll wrote his profile of Matsuzaka:

“He’s not Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Kuroda a very strong power pitcher with a low to mid-90s fastball and a wicked forkball. In addition, he features a plus shuuto, something like a screwball, as well as an effective change. Even if he only pans out as a third or fourth starter in the majors, he will give you innings, work deep into games, and he should be fairly consistent start to start.”

In one fewer season, Kuroda has thrown some 70 innings more than Daisuke (699.0, to be exact) and has started 112 games. He missed significant time in 2009 due to an oblique injury and a concussion suffered when he was struck in the head by a batted ball, but in the three other seasons he’s been as durable as Plugh expected. His numbers have been better than Daisuke’s as well, even if he was pitching in the NL West: he’s gone 41-46 with a 3.45 ERA and 3.55 FIP. True to form, he’s shown a good, hard fastball and shuuto (which is more of a two-seamer or sinker than a screwball), and generates a ton of groundballs while limiting his walks. In sum, he’s not the ace Daisuke was supposed to be, but he hasn’t been as bad as Daisuke was either.

When thinking a way to put this piece together I asked Over the Monster‘s Marc Normandin  if he had written anything lately putting a bow on Matsuzaka’s Boston career, figuring that Matsuzaka’s Tommy John surgery last summer likely marked the end of any meaningful relationship between the pitcher and the team. Marc’s answer surprised me. He said no, because Daisuke was ahead of schedule and might return sometime this year. Part of me wanted to scoff at the idea of Matsuzaka making any further contribution this year, but to do so would be to miss the point. Here on the first of March, with the promise of spring and meaningful baseball blooming in full, isn’t the lesson of Matsuzaka and Kuroda that  anything can happen and that the game will always surprise and confound you no matter what you expect or project? It’s why we always keep coming back for more, and it’s why baseball will never die.

Yankees Catchers & Passed Pitches

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Catcher defense is incredibly hard to quantify, but there’s been a lot of research done on the subject and a lot of progress made in recent years. Back in October, Bojan Koprivica published a ridiculously in-depth analysis on blocking pitches using PitchFX data, determining just who the best catchers were at keeping the ball in front of them. It’s an intense research piece but a surprisingly easy read, so I highly recommend checking it out. Even if you read it back in October, it’s worth re-reading for a refresher.

Since the start of the 2009 season, Yadier Molina has saved a total of 16.0 runs by blocking pitches, the most in baseball. That’s not a surprise since he’s generally regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game. Brian McCann (14.2) and Matt Wieters (13.3) round out the top three. Based on Koprivica’s work, pitch blocking is similar to base running in that its impact isn’t as significant as we may think. The best pitch blockers save about seven runs per season while the worst allow seven runs. Most catchers are within two runs of average. Yeah, every bit does count, but on the whole it’s not a huge part of the game.

FanGraphs now carries pitch blocking data using Koprivica’s algorithm, so it’s nice and easy for us to dig up the stats. Here’s how the Yankees’ two primary catchers have fared at blocking pitches over the last three seasons…

Expected Passed Pitches, CPP
Actual Passed Pitches, APP
Runs Saved, RPP RPP MLB Rank
Frankie Cervelli 59 59  0.0 27th
Russell Martin 142 159 -6.5 51st

I used a minimum of 1,000 innings caught over the last three seasons, giving us 58 qualifiers. Cervelli has performed exactly as expected during that time, which is pretty neat. Martin has been much worse however, which goes against pretty much everything we know and have heard about him defensively. It’s only 6.5 runs across 3036.2 innings, but only seven qualified catchers have been worse at blocking balls in the dirt than he has over the last three years*.

* One of those seven is Jorge Posada at -8.2 RPP in 1,469.1 innings (54th out of 58 qualifiers). Former Yankee Jose Molina isn’t much better believe it or not, he’s at -7.2 RPP in 1,200.1 innings.

Breaking it down by the individual seasons, we can see that most of the damage came back in 2009. Russ was expected to allow 48 balls to get by him based on what his pitchers threw that year, but he actually allowed 69 passed pitches. Those 21 extra passed pitches resulted in a -5.8 RPP for the season, the worst in baseball. Martin was pretty much league average in both 2010 (-0.1 RPP) and 2011 (-0.6 RPP) when it came to blocking balls, and the improvement since 2009 can probably be attributed to a million different things. I guess he seemed so much better than average last year because we were stuck watching Posada all those years.

Like I said earlier, passed pitches typically have a very small impact in the grand scheme of things, just a handful of runs each year. It seems a lot more when you’re watching a game and a passed ball allows the tying run to move into scoring position in the late innings, but that stuff evens out over the course of a 162-game schedule. Martin’s real defensive value comes from his ability to frame pitches according to the various catcher defense studies, but over the last two years he hasn’t killed his team with his pitch blocking skills either.

Update: RAB Goes To Washington

(Photo via AndrewClem.com)

As part of the NL park portion of their interleague schedule, the Yankees are taking a swing through our nation’s capitol for a three game set against the Nationals from June 15th-17th. We’re planning to have an RAB-related weekend down in D.C.; going to the games, hanging out before and afterwards, etc. Ben put out some feelers regarding your interest last month, and it’s safe to say the place will be crawling with Yankees fans that weekend.

We’re still working out most of the specifics, but we do have some updates to pass along…

  1. Nationals email list members can buy single-game tickets starting tomorrow. If you have access to them, buy tickets to the series that way. Don’t wait for us.
  2. Getting group tickets through the Nats for that series is a bit of a pain, so we’re going to look for group tickets on the secondary market. With any luck we’ll get a good deal through our partnership with TiqIQ. If you are interested in getting tickets through us this way, please be aware that you’re going to have to pay secondary market prices, which may be more than face value.
  3. As Ben mentioned last month, you’re responsible for transportation. If you have access to or find reasonably priced lodging, go for it. We may be able to get a room block somewhere but the price probably won’t be pretty.
  4. We’re planning to do meetups with readers before and after each game, but the locations are TBD. They’ll almost certainly be within walking distance of the ballpark, unless you happen to know of some awesome places further away.

Nationals Park is pretty nice, I was able to catch a game there last summer (here’s the box score … Sean Burroughs homer!). My advanced scouting report on the concessions is weak though, I didn’t do much exploring. The odds are in favor of us seeing a Stephen Strasburg start since it’s a three-game set, and with any luck Bryce Harper will be up by then as well. We can watch him launch some bombs and start counting down the days until he’s in pinstripes together.

If you have any questions or concerns about the trip, please let us know in the comments and we’ll try to answer them all either tonight or tomorrow morning. The trip will be a blast, and we hope to see many of you down in Washington.

Open Thread: 2/29 Camp Notes

"No kidding, you got a big league deal too?" (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Here’s the latest from Tampa…

  • Chad Jennings has the day’s pitching and hitting groups. Everyone except Austin Romine (back) and Robinson Cano (death in the family) hit while only non-roster players and minor leaguers threw live batting practice. Ivan Nova will throw a bullpen session tomorrow in advance of Saturday’s start against the Phillies, and every other big league pitcher not named Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano will throw to hitters.
  • Speaking of Mo, he threw his second bullpen of the spring, roughly 30 pitches or so. He’ll do it again either Friday or Saturday. [Marc Carig]
  • Infielders worked on the double play pivot and relay throws while Tony Pena brutalized catchers with infamous pitching machine drill. He essentially simulates wild pitches by having the pitching machine shoot the ball directly at home plate from like, 10-15 feet away. [David Waldstein & Carig]
  • Russell Branyan is dealing with some back spasms, and it’s unclear how long he’ll be out. Kyle Higashioka hurt his shoulder during yesterday’s workout, though Joe Girardi said it should only be a few days. Nothing serious. [Mark Feinsand & Jennings]
  • Non-Yankee Injury News: Apparently A.J. Burnett fouled a ball off his face during bunting drills today and is headed back to Pittsburgh for tests on his right eye. Hope everything’s okay. [AP via FOX]
  • The Yankees are holding their annual team building exercise tomorrow afternoon, so today’s workout was the last full workout of Spring Training. The exhibition schedule starts on Friday. [Jennings]

Here is your open thread for the evening. The Knicks are the only local team in action, but you can talk about whatever your heart desires here. Go nuts.

2012 promotional dates include BBQ apron, Snoopy bobblehead

The Yanks unveiled their preliminary promotional schedule today, and some new items join familiar giveaways in 2012. As always, the season starts with the popular calendar weekend (4/14-4/15). The following week, with the Twins in town, the Yanks will hand out tomato seed packets to the first 18,000 guests (4/18). The folks who come the day after get far more useful magnetic schedules.

In May, the Reds will enjoy the ever-popular cap and bat days (5/19, 5/20) while water bottle night (6/18) and a collectible pin day (6/20) are the highlights for June. The Yanks will host their traditional Old Timers’ Day on July 1 before they take on the White Sox that Sunday, and the first 18,000 fans on the 18th get a Mark Teixeira figurine.

The August dates are still to be announced, but September ushers in my personal favorite. The first 18,000 fans who attend the September 2 affair against the Orioles will receive a Yankees’ BBQ Apron, and those who make it to the game on the 19th can score a Snoopy Bobblehead doll. Who wouldn’t want a Yankee Snoopy? For the full slate of giveaways, check out the updated calendar.