Game 96: CC’s B-Day

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Jay?? via Creative Commons license)

It’s CC Sabathia‘s birthday today, the big guy turns 31. Kinda hard to believe he’s still that young though, isn’t it? It feels like he’s been around forever, but hey, I ain’t complaining. Sabathia dominated the Rays a week or so ago, hopefully he has more in store on his b-day. Here’s the lineup…

Brett Gardner, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Eduardo Nunez, 3B
Chris Dickerson, LF

CC Sabathia, SP

Tonight’s game can be seen on YES locally or MLB Network nationally. It starts a little after 7pm ET. Enjoy.

Should the Yankees look to add offense?

Believe it or not, the Yankees might not be aggressively seeking pitching in the next two weeks. We’ll see them connected with any starting pitcher that becomes available, and we’ll continue to find potential fits for the rotation, but the pitching situation isn’t quite as dire as we might have imagined when the season began. Both Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon continue to exceed expectations, A.J. Burnett isn’t going anywhere, and Phil Hughes showed signs of life in his last start. Beyond that, the Yankees have depth with Ivan Nova at AAA. Where, then, would a new pitching acquisition fit?

The perceived surplus shouldn’t stop the Yankees from hunting for a rotation upgrade. As we saw last year after the Cliff Lee trade fell through, the rotation’s identity can change dramatically between July and August. But with a lack of available options who represent true upgrades, there just might not be a move to make. Does this mean that the Yankees will stand pat at the deadline? Probably not. There are always upgrades they can make, even when it comes from an area of perceived strength.

Make no mistake: the Yankees offense is top-notch. They’re second in the AL in runs scored, and are .8 runs per game better than league average. But there are areas where they can upgrade. Three of their nine starters are below average with the bat, and for the next few weeks they’ll be without their second best offensive contributor this season. It does raise an interesting question: is upgrading the offense a worthy endeavor?

The Yankees could stand to upgrade at three positions: catcher, DH, and shortstop. Clearly they won’t make a move at short; if they won’t even move Derek Jeter down in the order, there’s no chance they’re replacing him. Not that they’d really have an opportunity to do so. The players who have hit better than him are either not available or not worth a trade. The Yanks are stuck there, but again, it’s not the worst position to be in, considering the realistic alternatives.

At DH they face a similar situation, though they could more easily replace Jorge Posada. He’s already been relegated to duty only against right-handed pitchers, but even with that he’s struggled lately. He had an excellent two-month run, hitting .303/.380/.447 in May and June, quelling the calls for his removal from the lineup. Yet he’s tanked again in May, which again raises the question of what he can produce going forward. There might be political ramifications of further reducing his playing time, but it’s less of an issue due to Jorge’s contract situation.

At catcher the Yanks have a conundrum. The pitching staff reportedly loves Russell Martin behind there, which makes it difficult for him to replace. Yet his performance has declined markedly: .185/.296/.275 since his two-homer game against Baltimore on April 23rd. That’s 233 PA of replacement level production. There’s little chance they’d remove Martin as starter, because of his rapport with the staff. But that doesn’t mean they have to continue starting him four out of every five days.

To the outside observer, there is a clear opportunity here to bring up the team’s top prospect, Jesus Montero. He could not only take over DH duties for Jorge, but he could also jump behind the plate and reduce Martin’s playing time to three out of every four days, rather than four out of five. The Yankees, however, have not displayed a willingness to consider Montero as an option this year. We can disagree all we want, but it appears to be the same situation as with Jeter in the leadoff spot: we can whine and complain, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. The Yankees might upgrade their offense, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be with Montero.

There isn’t any player on the market, or even remotely available, who could help with the catching situation. If the Yankees don’t use Montero, they’re stuck in that regard. That leaves DH as the only realistic spot where they can upgrade. It would be easier, and more cost-effective, for them to just stick with Posada and hope that his current slump ends the same way as his first one did. But that might not be in the cards. It’s hard to say what Jorge will do at this age — he turns 40, remember, next month. If the Yankees can upgrade anywhere, it’s here.

The problem, of course, is that an upgrade isn’t free. Teams don’t just give away players, and while we’ve seen such actions in the past, there don’t seem to be many teams that absolutely need to shed payroll right now. Those that do — and it appears to be just the Astros at this point — don’t have anything to offer the Yankees. That makes it more difficult to find an upgrade. At this point, given the team’s resources, its options on the market, and its needs, I can’t see any better move than bringing up Montero. Failing that, I’m not sure anyone — whether Carlos Beltran, Jason Kubel, or Josh Willingham — will be both worth the cost and represent a significant upgrade.

The Yankees stand to improve their 2011 team, and in the next few weeks I expect to see them connected to many players. On offense, though, the wise move is to wait things out. There are a few areas of weakness, but the market doesn’t bear completely logical fits. The Mets want a top prospect for Carlos Beltran, and none of the other options provide an instant, noticeable upgrade. Considering the what’s out there and what they have, Montero appears to be the only logical upgrade.

Scouting The Trade Market: John Danks

Mystery pitcher revealed. OK, so John Danks isn’t much of a mystery at all. He’s been a very good pitcher for the past four seasons, and any team would be lucky to have him among their starting five. Last night he came off a DL stint and pitched very well, albeit against a not-so-impressive Kansas City lineup. He would fit right into the Yankees rotation not only in 2011, but also in the future.

Before we launch into the pros and cons of Danks, let’s first look at the White Sox situation. They’re currently 47-51, realistically putting them out of the Wild Card race. That leaves only the division, and while they’re only 4.5 games back in a wide open AL Central, they’ve done nothing this year to show that they’re capable of catching Detroit and Cleveland. Hell, just watch Ozzie Guillen after last night’s game. He sounds precisely like a guy managing a team that is going nowhere.

Yet the White Sox aren’t necessarily sellers. I can’t remember a time since Kenny Williams took over as GM that they were sellers at the deadline, even in their predictably bad 2007 season. In other words, he might not even be discussing Danks. But if the right deal comes along, who knows.

Pros

  • While Danks has experienced some minor ups and downs, he’s been very good since 2008. He set expectations high that year, and hasn’t quite reached them again, but he’s still put up fine performances from 2009 through now.
  • Even though he started off the year poorly, finishing May with an ERA over 5.00, he’s been quite excellent since the calendar flipped to June. In five starts he’s pitched 30.2 innings and has a 0.88 ERA and 1.87 FIP. But don’t let that fool you too much, since he faced Seattle, Oakland, Arizona, Washington, and Kansas City in that span. In four of the five starts he threw at least seven innings. The only shorter one was when he left due to injury. This has brought his ERA and FIP to better than league average.
  • He’s a lefty, which is valuable in itself. But he is a lefty with no discernible platoon split. In fact, he’s been ever so slightly better against righties, thanks to his changeup.
  • He has another year left of team control, at what figures to be a decent raise over his $6 million salary this year. He’ll probably max out at around $10 million in 2012, which would be an incredible bargain.
  • He has pretty even home-road splits, which is a plus for any player getting traded. There’s nothing worse than acquiring a player whose success is based on his home park.
  • He kind of, in a way, reminds me of Andy Pettitte. That’s a plus, right?

Cons

  • His career component ERAs — FIP, xFIP, and SIERA — have him closer to league average than top of the rotation. His career ERA has been very good, though, and he has a good sampling of 848.1 innings.
  • All the stuff in the pros column is a good reason that he’ll cost a lot in a trade. He’s not going to come at the price of Ubaldo Jimenez, because he doesn’t have as much team control and he’s not as cheap. But he’s good and relatively inexpensive, meaning the White Sox would have to get a good return for him. Perhaps more than the Yankees are willing to give.
  • The Sox really have a rough looking rotation next year, and might need Danks to be there. They might be more willing to trade Edwin Jackson, since he might not be around. But he’s not as good as Danks, and probably not worth the price considering his performance relative to the current rotation.

If available I’d love to see the Yankees make a run at Danks. He’s the kind of pitcher I can see staying in pinstripes for a long time. But if he’d look good in navy blue pinstripes, he’d probably look equally good in black ones. I’m not sure what the White Sox think of him long term, but even if they plan to let him walk after 2012 they might be forced to keep him around, if just for the holes in their rotation.

Evaluating Garcia on results, not process

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

If you’ve been reading this site long enough, then you know that we’re fans of evaluating players based on their process, or underlying performance. If the process is right, chances are the results will be good. A good at-bat might result in an out while a bad at-bat yields a hit, but I’ll take the guy that does more of the former over the course of the season. Same deal with pitchers, sometimes a bad pitch turns into an out and sometimes that knee-high fastball on the outside corner gets slapped down the line for a double. I briefly mentioned this in the recap last night, but I’ve stopped caring about Freddy Garcia‘s process.

Usually when we talk about pitchers here we’ll reference their peripheral stats, their strikeout numbers, walk totals, ground ball percentages, the ability to get swings and misses, stuff like that. You don’t need to be a DIPS theory expert to understand that more strikeouts plus fewer walks plus fewer homeruns will lead to better individual results at the end of the day. The number of hits a pitcher gives up is impacted by the defense behind him, as is the number of runs he’s allowed. That why ERA fails to tell the whole story. Don’t even get me started with wins, why a pitcher is getting credit for something his teammates helped accomplish is beyond me.

Garcia’s underlying performance is actually pretty good this year. His 8.8% swing and miss rate is better than league average (8.5%) even though his 5.99 K/9 is well below the league standard (7.00). He doesn’t walk anyone, just 2.69 batters for every nine innings pitched. Take out intentional walks, and it’s 2.34 men per nine. In fact, Garcia has walked zero batters in three of his last four starts. An absurdly low 33.7% ground ball rate has resulted in just 0.78 homers allowed per nine innings, a rate that’s probably unsustainable in Yankee Stadium. His 3.74 FIP is six percent better than the league average, his 4.13 xFIP five percent worse than league average. But again, I don’t care.

Freddy has made 17 starts and a dozen of them have been so called quality starts. I’m not sure why three runs and six innings (a 4.50 ERA) was deemed to be “quality,” but I don’t really care. That’s the kind of game the Yankees can win because of their offense and bullpen. That’s all I care about with Garcia, did he pitch well enough to win? If so, great. I don’t care if he scattered 14 hits in six innings and recorded every out on a fly ball to the warning track. Just get it done, the process is secondary.

I’m pretty sure my thinking has shifted with Garcia just because he’s relatively unorthodox. He has no velocity these days, so it’s all about disrupting the hitter’s rhythm. It’s almost inexplicable at times, with floating changeups and rolling curveballs and occasionally some mid-80’s fastballs right over the plate, it doesn’t look like it should work. I can’t explain it, it’s just a classic example of a veteran pitcher finding a way to get outs. It’s so hideously cliche, but I don’t care. Freddy’s allowing fewer runs than the Yankees are scoring and that’s all that matters.

Because he’s not a long-term piece of the Yankees puzzle, I have no trouble looking past Garcia’s process and focusing on his results. I don’t care if what he’s doing is sustainable for the long-term because it doesn’t have to be. It just has to work the rest of the season, which is very well may not. Freddy is in a league of his own with his pitching style, so I’m not going to evaluate him like everyone else. Just get out and prevent runs, I don’t care how it looks.

The Great Gardner

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I’ve been following the minor leagues for quite some time now, and I’ve been wrong about a lot of players, in both a good way and bad way. I was wrong about Brett Gardner. I saw a guy with little power and thought he’d have trouble handling big league fastballs. I didn’t think the plate discipline he showed in the minors would translate to the show because pitchers had no reason not to challenge him. I undervalued his defense and baserunning. I was wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong about a prospect coming up.

The Yankees entrusted Gardner will a full-time job at the start of last season, 257 team games and nearly 900 plate appearances ago (892 to be exact). During that time he’s hit .280/.376/.394 with 73 stolen bases in 92 chances (78.5% success rate). His .359 wOBA since the start of 2010 is sixth best among big league left fielders, his OBP third best. He’s generated 27.0 runs with his bat in that time, another 6.7 with his legs. That 33.7 run offensive contribution is bested only by Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Gonzalez. Not Carl Crawford, not Martin Prado, not Alfonso Soriano, not anyone else handling left field full-time. Only 13 outfielders total, regardless of field, have topped that production.

The last week has been the best offensive stretch of Gardner’s career; he’s reached base 18 times in seven games since the All-Star break. He has 14 hits in 25 at-bats plus four walks. That’s a .560 batting average and .621 OBP in the seven games. He’s struck out just twice during that time, in part because his 2.9% swing and miss rate since the start of last year is the fourth lowest in baseball. I also underrated his ability to get the bat on the ball. Only six players have seen more than the 4.25 pitches Gardner sees in an average plate appearance this year. I also underrated his ability to work the count.

Then there’s the defense. Oh the defense. UZR doesn’t just rate Gardner as baseball’s best defensive player since the start of last season, he’s lapped the field. The system has him saving 41.6 runs with the glove in that time, well ahead of second place Adrian Beltre and his 20.6 runs saved. If you prefer John Dewan’s +/- system, or DRS, then Gardner is baseball’s third best defensive player (29 runs saved) since the start of 2010 behind Brendan Ryan (36) and Troy Tulowitzki (33). Total Zone has him at 21 runs saved, behind only Jay Bruce, Juan Pierre, and Jose Lopez (all 22). The best thing about Gardner’s defense is that I don’t even need to use numbers, it’s easy to see how he dominates the defensive side of the game just by watching. If a ball gets by him, you know the other team has earned it.

It’s been more than a month since Gardner has been caught stealing a base, and he’s swiped seven bags in the last five days. No AL player has more than his 30 steals this season, and only three players (Michael Bourn, Rajai Davis, and Pierre) have more than his 77 steals since the start of last season. It’s been a long time since the Yankees had this kind of player on their roster, a dynamic leadoff type that did everything but hit for power. A lot of people doubted Gardner’s ability to be an everyday player in this league, including yours truly, but our sample is larger than a year and a half now. Gardner isn’t just one of the best players on the Yankees, he’s one of the very best outfielders in baseball.