Comparing the Yankees to their peers: Infield

The halfway point of the season passed about a week ago, but the next three days represent the observed mid-point in the season. Absent meaningful baseball games to discuss, we’re left with a short period of evaluation. We do this every year, and we try to take it from a different angle each time. This year we’ll look around the roster and compare the Yankees to their positional peers. We start today with the infielders.

To keep things on a similar scale, we’ll measure everything in runs. On offense this will be FanGraphs’ Batting Runs Above Average (the offense component of WAR, which is wOBA park- and league-adjusted) and UZR. Since UZR has its share of issues, we’ll also add Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average for more context — though there is no rank on FRAA.

1B, Mark Teixeira

(Charles Krupa/AP)

A notoriously slow starter, Teixeira helped eliminate that narrative when he homered in the seasons’s first three games, and four of the first five. It spurred his best April in recent memory: .256/.392/.549. He’s fallen off considerably since then, though, hitting .240/.338/.508 since May 1, for a collective first-half line of .244/.352/.519, or a .378 wOBA.

Offense: 18.0, 6th. I actually expected Teixeira to finish a bit worse here, on account of the insane production among first basemen this year. Sixth isn’t bad, but the players ahead of him are way ahead of him: Paul Konerko, who ranks fifth, is nearly seven runs better than Teixeira at the plate.

Defense: 2.9, 7th. UZR has rarely worked out favorably for Teixeira. We see him make amazing plays every week at first, yet he has two years of below-average UZR numbers as a Yankee. I’m not sure why, but the answer might simply be that the numbers that feed into UZR don’t necessarily reflect the skills that make a first baseman valuable. Or maybe it’s seeing something that our eyes aren’t. FRAA has him at -2.9 runs.

WAR: 3.1, 5th. Teixeira leapfrogs Konerko here not just because of defense, but because Konerko has a league-worst -7.3 base running mark. Yes, that’s worse than Posada.

2B, Robinson Cano

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After a career year in 2010, Cano had set the bar high for 2011. He hasn’t quite reached that level of production, but he has surged at times. He ended the first half with a .296/.342/.521 line that looks good, not great, but is actually relatively elite given the offensive environment.

Offense: 15.8, 5th. Would you believe that Dustin Pedroia is first among 2B with 18.1 runs above average? He’s a little ways ahead of Cano thanks to his much higher OBP. Cano has the power game going on, which keeps him right around the leaders. He’s actually closer to first than his is sixth, so he’s grouped in with Pedroia, Rickie Weeks, Ian Kinsler, and Ben Zobrist as the top-tier offensive second basemen in the league. You can throw Howie Kendrick, at 13.1 runs above average, in there if you want as well.

Defense: -2.5, 16th. As has been the norm. UZR rates Cano lower than what we observe from day-to-day. This year he’s been observably worse than he was in 2010, but it still doesn’t feel as though he’s a below average defender. Unsurprisingly, FRAA has him at 1.2 runs above average. Then again, it had him slightly below average last year, and well above average every other year of his career, and had 2008 as his best year.

WAR: 2.9, 8th. This is where his fielding numbers hurt a bit. It’s tough to imagine that Brandon Phillips is more than a win better than him in the field, but that’s where UZR is going with this season. It might not be completely accurate, since batted ball data isn’t perfect and can affect UZR. But it might just be the effects of a small sample: half a season of UZR is akin to a month or so of offensive data, and so it could be the result of a simple slump.

3B, Alex Rodriguez

(Kathy Willens/AP)

After he got off to an incredibly hot start, Alex battled injuries, first to his oblique and then to his knee, throughout the first half. He ends it on a downer, as surgery will cost him four to six weeks. But given how well he hit even with the injuries, a healthy, rejuvenated Alex could be an enormous threat down the stretch.

Offense: 15.1, 2nd. Kevin Youkilis has greatly outhit every third baseman in the league, as he’s 6.8 runs ahead of Alex. That’s to the Sox advantage in one way, since they essentially have two guys who hit like first basemen. But as you’ll see in the next few categories, it’s not all hunky dory.

Defense: 10.3, 1st. There is no doubt that Alex has played a superb third base this season. He looks smoother out there in the field, which likely has to do with his trimming down this winter. But has he provided a win above average with his glove? Just as we should be skeptical of Cano’s low UZR, we should be skeptical of Alex’s high one. He’s been good, but I’m not so certain he’s been that good. Then again, FRAA has him at 6.2 runs above average, which is already better than any of his years at third except for 2008.

WAR: 4.0, 1st. This is largely a fielding-based advantage, but it does appear that A-Rod is that much better than Youkilis with the glove at third. Third base is a pretty bleak position this year, and so having Alex has been a great advantage. That stinks, because he’s going to miss plenty of time. But it also means that Eduardo Nunez shouldn’t have much trouble hitting like an above-average third baseman.

SS, Derek Jeter

(Kathy Kmonicek/AP)

Jeter was primed for a bounce back. He had worked all winter trying to simplify his swing, removing a hitch that hurt him greatly in 2010. Yet it didn’t work out at all. He abandoned his new mechanics shortly after the season started, and at the break he’s more or less at the same level as last year. Missing time with a calf injury didn’t help matters. Unless Saturday was a portend for the second half, it appears that we’ll have a second half of Jeter atop the lineup with a .330ish OBP.

Offense: -2.3, 15th. There is Jose Reyes, and then there is a second tier of very good offensive shortstops: Asdrubal Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, and Yunel Escobar. It starts to dip a bit after that, with a cluster around 5 runs above average, until we get into the negatives. Unfortunatley, Jeter doesn’t even fall into that 5-run group. He has been the offensive equivalent of Ryan Theriot, which is something I never thought I’d have to type.

Defense: -1.0, 15th. Again, the eye test pretty much lines up with the UZR assessment. Jeter hasn’t been great in the field, but he’s certainly looked better than he did last year. It’s clear that he put more emphasis on his defensive game during the off-season, because he’s getting to more balls to his left. Maybe it’s a positioning thing, too. FRAA has him at -3.7, which, while not very good, is way, way, way, way better than the numbers throughout his career on that scale.

WAR: 0.9, 17th. In one way, the injury hurt him here, since WAR is a counting stat. In another way, since he’s below average both at the plate and in the field, perhaps his DL hint merely stanched the bleeding. In any case, he stands further below his peers than any other Yankees starter. That’s something that absolutely needs to change in the second half, especially with A-Rod — who is so far ahead of his peers — missing time.

Russell Martin, C

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Martin started off the season with a bang — thanks, Ned! — but has dropped off considerably since then. He ended the first month at .293/.376/.587, but has hit just .185/.299/.287 since then. He seems like a guy who would benefit greatly from the three days off. Of course, he’s the backup catcher for the AL in the All-Star game, which means he’ll play.

Offense: 1.0, 13th. Part of this is the time he missed, and part of it is the horrible performance since the end of April. Injury might have explained some of his poor performances, but his numbers have continued to decline even after he recovered.

Defense: 0.5, 6th. I’m honestly not sure how they’re doing defense, since there is no UZR for catchers. Normally they use Defensive Runs Saved, but those are in whole numbers, not fractions. In any case, Martin grades out at around the same level as his peers, which passes the eye test. His pitchers, with their long deliveries, might be hurting his caught stealing numbers, too.

WAR: 1.7, 8th. Considering his offensive shortcomings, this isn’t too bad. He might be even better, too, since Carlos Santana has logged about a third of his playing time at first base. There’s clear room for improvement, too, which could bode well for Martin in the second half.

The Brandon Laird Option

(Photo Credit: Flickr user paul.hadsall via Creative Commons license)

Alex Rodriguez will miss the next month or so after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee today, leaving the Yankees will a huge hole in their lineup. Even though he hasn’t been hitting for power, A-Rod was still very productive from the cleanup spot, hitting .333/.387/.417 in 93 plate appearances since his last homerun. The Yankees can replace his stats (they may luck out and find someone to match that production but the odds are against it), though they won’t replace the way his presence impacts the game. Alex is one of those rare players that changes the game from the on-deck circle, and no backup infield does that.

Reports over the weekend indicated that the Yankees prefer to replace A-Rod from within, but they’ll at least kick the tires on outside options. The most popular trade candidate seems to be Aramis Ramirez, but he’s a complete non-option. He can definitely hit, no doubt (.298/.346/.497), but his contract says his $16M club option for 2012 turns into a player option if he’s traded. That’s a total deal breaker, there’s no reason for the Yankees to take that on for a six-week stopgap. More realistic options include Melvin Mora and Kevin Kouzmanoff, but they’re not guaranteed to outperform the guys already have in the organization.

The obvious in-house replacement is Eduardo Nunez, who did a fine job filling in for Derek Jeter a few weeks ago. The team has already indicated that he’ll get the bulk of the playing time in A-Rod’s absence, but there is one other option: Brandon Laird. Gerald’s little brother is already on the 40-man roster and is having an okay but not great season at Triple-A. He’s hitting .268/.297/.418 overall with ten homers, though it’s worth noting that he’s been playing better of late: .299/.325/.470 in his last 243 plate appearances, .292/.320/.503 in his last 153 plate appearances, and .311/.321/.584 in his last 78 plate appearances. No, he’s doesn’t walk much, but that’s life.

Laird does his best work against southpaws, tagging them for a .300/.337/.525 line this year (.258/.284/.383 vs. RHP) with a similar platoon split through his career. Not only does have a plethora of experience at third base, but he’s also played plenty of first base and the Yankees have had him dabble in left field over the last ten months or so. It’s probably not a coincidence that his first career game in right field came two days ago. Laird won’t win any Gold Gloves, but he won’t embarrass himself and should make all the routine plays, just not the spectacular onces. My guess is that with a full season’s worth of playing time, he’d probably be 5-10 runs below average with the glove. Not awful, but his bat is good enough that he should be better than replacement level.

For all intents and purposes, this is why the Yankees protected Laird from the Rule 5 Draft last winter. He’ll never ever ever be a starter on this team (barring disaster, anyway), so he serves two purposes: trade bait and an injury fill-in. If he performs well enough at the latter, maybe he snags a bench job for a while. There’s no doubt he’s better than Ramiro Pena, especially offensively, so the Yankees could swap the two and use Laird two or three times a week, primarily against lefties. That way Nunez could spell Jeter and Robinson Cano (or even get a day off himself) without completely sacrificing offense. He’d also be the fifth outfielder and backup first baseman as well.

This is exactly the kind of situation teams carry players like Laird, to fill a temporary hole on the big league roster. ZiPS projected a .250/.297/.424 batting line at big league level before the season, which would be a minor miracle in my eyes. The minor league equivalency of his Triple-A performance is .234/.261/.355 overall and .268/.285/.398 over his last 243 plate appearances. That’s a .295 wOBA or so, and maybe optimal usage (i.e. limited exposure to righties) gets him up to a .310-.315 wOBA, basically league average. I’d rather give Laird a chance to do that than stick with Pena, who we all know will be awful. Sorry Ramiro, nothing personal.

This isn’t quite a long-term fill-in situation but it’s not short-term either, let’s call it medium-term. It’s the perfect chance to try Laird out and see what the kid can do. If he flops, then fine, the Yankees will have essentially lost nothing because his replacement (Pena) is also terrible. If mean really, if not now, then when? Come Thursday (when the games start back up), there are two moves I want to see: Pena down and A-Rod to the disabled list, replaced by Laird and (I guess) Chris Dickerson. Nunez gets the majority of the playing time but Laird sees semi-regular at-bats against lefties. The bench would be the non-useless quartet of Laird/Nunez, Dickerson, Andruw Jones, and Frankie Cervelli. This is why they put Laird on the 40-man during the offseason, to use him in spots like this.

Fan Confidence Poll: July 11th, 2011

Record Last Week: 3-3 (22 RS, 22 RA)
Season Record: 53-35 (455 RS, 334 RA, 57-31 pythag. record), tied in the loss column for AL East lead
Opponents This Week: Mon. to Weds. OFF for All-Star break, @ Blue Jays (four games, Thurs. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
View Results

Sabathia dominates Rays to wrap up first half

No one wants to head into the All-Star break coming off a loss, so CC Sabathia made sure his team wouldn’t have to do that on Sunday. He was the starter, setup man, and closer against the Rays, tossing his first complete game shutout since 2009.

Last four starts: 31.2 IP, 6 BB, 42 K. Rawr.

Domination

Two of the first five Rays batters hits doubles. None of the next 24 made it as far as second base. Some iffy baserunning (thanks, B.J. Upton) helped out with that last part, but the point is that Sabathia overpowered Tampa’s lineup, recording 19 of his 27 outs on the infield. He was throwing his hardest in the ninth inning, blowing a 98.4 mph heater passed Elliot Johnson on pitch number 113, the last of the game. Only four batters saw a three-ball count. Complete dominance, CC looked like he was ready to pitch the 10th and 11th innings if it got that far.

Sabathia’s outing resulted in 0.791 WPA, the second highest WPA by a starting pitcher this season. Only Francisco Liriano’s no-hitter was better (0.829). His 87 Game Score was the 17th best in baseball this year and the best by a Yankee. You have to go back to this 2005 game to find a higher Game Score among Yankee hurlers. By my completely amateurish calculation, Sabathia went from 4.4 WAR to 5.0 WAR in this game alone, second only to the great Roy Halladay among big league starters. His scoreless streak is now a career-high 23.2 IP. It just doesn’t get much better than this. Enjoy the Bahamas, big fella. You’ve earned it.

A Run On Two Baserunning Mistakes

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Jamie Shields matched Sabathia zero for zero. The Yankees smallballed their way out of a rally in the third (more on that later) and watched as Shields retired the next nine men he faced through the sixth inning. Robinson Cano snuck a single under Ben Zobrist’s glove at second to start the seventh, and things got a little crazy after that. Jorge Posada was hunting a first-pitch fastball and looped a fly ball into center, but Upton caught it on the run and had Cano stretched too far off the bag. He threw to first for what should have been a double play, but the throw ended up in the Yankees’ dugout. By rule, Cano advanced two bases to third when a good throw would have doubled him off the bag.

The Rays brought the infield in with the man on third in the scoreless game and it worked perfectly thanks to Russell Martin‘s hacking at the first pitch. His ground ball went right to Sean Rodriguez at third, who looked Cano back to the bag before making the throw to first. Brett Gardner was at the plate hoping for a hit or a wild pitch to score the run with two outs, but the Rays got cute and tried to catch Cano napping at third. Shields made a pickoff throw to third that eluded S-Rod and went into foul territory, allowing Robbie to score easily. The thing is that the pickoff throw would have worked if the throw was on line; Cano was way off the bag and dead to rights. Upton’s throw and Shields’ pickoff bailed Cano out twice, but sometimes you need a little luck like that. The run was unearned, and I can’t imagine there are many 1-0 games where the run is unearned in the AL.

Death By Bunting

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Yankees pulled off a sacrifice bunt and it didn’t work. Shocking, I know. Even better: it was Curtis Granderson, the team’s best hitter all season, who laid down the bunt. Eduardo Nunez and Derek Jeter reached on infield singles to lead off the third, Grandy bunted them over, then Mark Teixeira flew out into a double play because Upton threw out Nunez at the plate by ten feet. I mean really, what’s the thought process there? That the .244 hitting first baseman who can’t hit changeups will single in both runners against a changeup pitcher? Congrats, common sense lost again. Can’t wait for this to happen in a game with something really on the line.

LOL B.J.

Leftovers

I don’t think a player with two hits can have a worse day than Upton did. He singled in the fourth then immediately got picked off by Sabathia, who started a rundown between first and second. Upton then beat out an infield single in the seventh (more in a bit) but got doubled off first on Rodriguez’s line drive to right. He had his head down and just kept running. Then there was the throw into the dugout. Just a brutal day, especially when the Bleacher Creatures started serenading him with “B. J. Up-ton clap clap clapclapclap” chants after the run scored.

Shields kept the offense pretty well in check, the Yankees had just four singles, two of which didn’t even leave the infield. Teixeira drew the only walk way back in the first inning. He was pretty dominant, basically Sabathia with one inning of bad defense.

The Yankees are an absurd 26-5 in the day games, the best mark since the 1955 Dodgers also won 26 of their first 31 day games. Of course, that means the Yankees are 27-30 in night games. I suspect that’s more of a fluke than a trend. I can’t think of anything that would make a team play so much better during the day than at night. Anyway, the Yankees have won two straight and 14 of their last 20. That’s a fine way to head into the break.

WPA Graph & Box Score

MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs the other stuff.

Up Next

Three days off, which will be nice for the Yankees but bad for us fans. They’ll kick off the second half with four games in Toronto against the Fightin’ Bautistas on Thursday. Bartolo Colon gets that start, and here’s the rest of the team’s pitching plans. If you’re going to be in Toronto for the weekend, RAB Tickets can get you into the games dirt cheap.

Romine shines at Futures Game

Jesus Montero is officially out of the Triple-A All-Star Game because he’s still on the disabled list with his sore back. Jorge Vazquez has withdrawn from the Triple-A Homerun Derby due to his recent shoulder injury. For shame.

2011 Futures Game (USA Team 6, World Team 4)
Austin Romine, C: 2 for 2, 1 R – entered the game in the sixth … didn’t get to see the first hit because ESPN2 was busy showing 2001 World Series Game Seven highlights, but the second was a single on a first pitch breaking ball to left, driving in the go-ahead run in the eighth … he took second on the throw home … he also made a nice catch on a foul pop-up at the wall, falling backwards after overrunning it by a step … he had a chance at MVP, but Grant Green took it with the exact same batting line, though both of his hits were doubles … oh well, still a very nice showing

Triple-A Scranton (3-1 loss to Rochester)
Austin Krum, LF, Jorge Vazquez, 1B, Luis Nunez, 2B & Doug Bernier, SS: all 1 for 4 – Krum walked and whiffed … JoVa struck out twice … Nunez doubled, scored, and struck out … Bernier drove in a run and struck out
Greg Golson, CF & Jordan Parraz, RF: both 0 for 3 – Parraz walked and whiffed
Terry Tiffee, DH: 2 for 4, 1 2B
Brandon Laird, 3B: 0 for 4, 1 K
P.J. Pilittere, C: 2 for 4
Pants Lendleton, RHP: 5 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 7-0 GB/FB, 1 E (throwing) – 53 of 76 pitches were strikes (69.8%) … lots of grounders, but he did give up two homers
George Kontos, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 13 of 16 pitches were strikes (81.3%)
Andrew Brackman, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-3 GB/FB – 15 of 27 pitches were strikes (55.6%) … the one hit was an infield single, but he reportedly threw a lot of curveballs early in the count … that’s bad, he should be pounding hitters with his fastball and finishing the curve … a power pitcher pitching backwards tells me he’s not confident in his fastball at all

[Read more…]