For DJ3K, a TiqIQ contest

As Derek Jeter slowly inches his way toward his inevitable 3000th hit, River Ave. Blues and our partner TiqIQ are hosting a contest to celebrate the milestone. The winner will get two tickets to a sporting event of their choice courtesy of TiqIQ.

So how to enter: First, readers will have to head on over to Facebook and “like” RAB Tickets. Then, post on the RAB Tickets Facebook wall a guess for Jeter’s 3000th hit that includes the date, the inning and the count of the at-bat on which Jeter will reach that milestone. If more than one person guesses correctly, winner will be decided by a pitch count tiebreaker. If there is still a tie, winner will be picked based on order of submission.

If you’d like to get a sense of how the secondary ticket market is responding to Jeter’s quest, take a look at this graphic. It looks like most buyers think Jeter will reach 3000 at home this weekend on either Friday or Saturday. Personally, I’m betting on Friday, but that’s because Joe, Mike and I are all going to be at the stadium that evening.

Alex Rodriguez’s problem with lefties

Blue = vs. LHP, Red = vs. RHP, Green = vs. ALL

The decline of Alex Rodriguez has been greatly exaggerated, though you’d be foolish to say it’s not happening. Long gone are the days of .300/.390/.550+ with a guaranteed 30+ homers and 150+ games played every single year, but it’s not like he’s turned into a .260 singles hitter. A-Rod is hitting .295/.369/.493 this year, a .378 wOBA that is third best among all third baseman (four points from being first). His 4.0 fWAR is a full win better than the next best third baseman in the game (Adrian Beltre at 2.9).

Alex’s decline is most obvious against left-handed pitchers, and the graph above shows that. His production against southpaws, a demographic he once routinely demolished at near-historic levels, has cratered to the point where he’s been basically league average against them since the start of 2010. There’s usually nothing wrong with league average, but there is when it comes to a player of A-Rod’s caliber. His batted ball profile (right) shows that he’s been hitting more and more balls on the ground against lefties over the last four years, and that’s a pretty good explanation of why his production has dropped. Hard for a ground ball to go over the fence. Furthermore, let’s look at the spray charts against lefties (via Texas Leaguers) …

Here’s a gif of the four spray charts together, might make it easier to see. I’ve taken the liberty of circling left field since that’s what really stands out; A-Rod has simply stopped pulling the ball against left-handed pitchers. Maybe that’s a conscious decision, maybe he’s sitting back more and waiting to drive pitches to the opposite field to take advantage of the short porch in right. Pitchers aren’t pitching him any differently (LHP fastball rate from 2008-2011: 63.4%, 59.8%, 63.6%, 63.6%) and other than a spike in 2009 (which coincides with the drop one-year drop is fastball rate), Alex’s strikeout rate against southpaws has remained pretty constant. If it’s a conscious decision to go the other way, it’s not working and he should definitely get back to pulling the ball, even though Yankee Stadium isn’t as kind when you hit the ball in that direction.

On the other hand, A-Rod will be turning 36 later this month, and it could just be age-related decline. His bat is slowing and he might not be able to get around on the heat anymore, but then why doesn’t he have a similar problem against righties? Perhaps it’s a sample size thing, in that there are so many more righties than lefties that he’s gotten enough reps against them to figure out how to approach them as his bat slows. I don’t know, I’m just spit-balling here. For whatever reason, Alex isn’t pulling the ball against left-handers anymore, and it’s draining his overall production. With guys like David Price, Ricky Romero, and Jon Lester in the division, it’s a problem.

Manipulating Phil Hughes’ Roster Spot

(Photo Credit: Flickr user alexabboud via Creative Commons license)

After nearly three months on the disabled list, Phil Hughes will officially rejoin the rotation tomorrow night. Ivan Nova has already been sent to the minors to free up a rotation spot, and someone else will be sent down tomorrow to clear a roster spot when Hughes is officially activated. Pants Lendleton is a safe guess. The Yankees will have a chance to manipulate that roster spot even further after Hughes makes the start, and it involves sending him to the minors.

The idea is simple enough. Phil starts Wednesday, then on Thursday he gets sent down. That would allow the Yankees to call up an extra bullpen arm (or position player, if that’s what they feel they need) for the four games against Tampa leading into the All-Star break. If Mariano Rivera‘s sore triceps lingers, that extra arm could come in handy. Although it’s certainly not a must-win series, four games against the Rays are pretty important since they’re lingering in the standings, just five games back of the Yankees in the loss column.

Hughes is only scheduled to make the one Wednesday start before the break, so the rotation won’t be short-handed if he goes down. Players have to stay in the minors for ten days after being demoted, so he won’t be eligible to come up until next Sunday. That’s not a problem because the break will give the other four guys in the rotation plenty of rest. No one misses a start, no one has to pitch on short rest, nothing. In a worst case scenario where someone gets hurt, Hughes could be recalled because of the injury rule. There’s also Brian Gordon and Ivan Nova for that situation.

As for Hughes himself, sending him down gives him a chance to make a regular start during the downtime instead of sitting for eight or nine days because of the break. Joe Girardi said over the weekend that the rest might not be a bad thing since he’s rehabbed so hard, but I’m not so sure I buy that. He’s just 25 and missed a bunch of time, I’m sure he’s feeling pretty fresh compared to everyone else. Even if he makes a short start in Double-A*, say three innings or 60 pitches just to stay sharp, it’ll help keep the rust off. Hughes has two minor league options left by my count, but one would not be burned in this situation because he won’t remain in the minors for the 20 days needed to use an option.

* The Triple-A All-Star break is the same days as the MLB one, so there would be no game for Hughes to start for Scranton next week. He’d have to go to Trenton for it to work.

It sounds great on paper, but there are some sticking points. For one, who are they going to call up to fill that extra roster spot? Kevin Whelan and Ryan Pope are on the disabled list, and neither Gordon or Nova is clear of the ten day rule. The only pitchers on the 40-man roster that are in the minors and eligible to come up are Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, and Steve Garrison. Definite noes on the first two, though Garrison could be useful as a second left-hander out of the pen. Lefties Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, and Casey Kotchman hit in premium lineup spots for Tampa and all have pronounced platoon splits. It makes some sense.

The Yankees would also have the option of adding someone to the 40-man roster, but that will require some serious player movement. They need to clear a 40-man spot to take Hughes off the 60-man DL in the first place, then would have to make another move to add a reliever the next day. I suppose (the injured) Jeff Marquez and Kanekoa Texiera could be designated for assignment, or they could call-up Justin Maxwell and stick him on the 60-day DL since he’s done for the year with a torn labrum. There are moves to be made, though none are obvious. Randy Flores, George Kontos, even Adam Warren could be candidates to come up for the four games against Tampa.

Here’s an example of how the rotation could shake out immediately before and after the break, which works out pretty nicely. I’m not sure if the Yankees would go for this little maneuver though, it might be a little cute for them. It makes sense however, strengthening the roster a bit for an important series (or at least as important as a July series can be) against a division rival is something a team should always consider.

Dealing with Jeter at the top of the lineup

(From Flickr user jcanroot via Creative Commons license.)

When Derek Jeter came off the DL before yesterday’s game, the Yankees got more than just the player. They got all of the drama that comes along with him. That’s not exactly normal for Jeter. While the spotlight has always moved with him, but it has cast him in mostly a positive light. The stories about Jeter this year have been something less than that. While there are still positive vibes, mostly in regards to his 3,000 hit milestone, he and the team have faced an onslaught of criticism over his place in the lineup (and in some, more frivolous, cases, his role as a starter). Yet all this nitpicking might be just that.

A common refrain from stat-minded fans goes something like this: The difference between the optimal and the least efficient batting orders amounts to about a win during the course of a full season. It still means something on a game-to-game basis, but as with most averages it evens out when you collect a large enough sample. It’s not ideal, having guys who don’t get on base often sandwiched with guys who do, but good teams can overcome that in the long run.

It is clear to everyone, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, that Brett Gardner is a better fit in the leadoff spot than Jeter. Even after Gardner slumped a bit in the past week his on-base is 30 points higher than Jeter’s. The ZiPS rest of season projections give Gardner the advantage as well. Given his speed and prowess on the base paths, it’s a great advantage to have him leading off. But is it worth the drama to move Jeter down — probably to eighth — while Gardner slides into the lead off spot?

Against lefties this shouldn’t even be a question. Even as his production has declined in the past few years Jeter has continued to hit lefties. His wRC (weighted runs created, based on wOBA) against lefties from 2010 through the present is 51.0, which trails only Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Nick Swisher — that is, hitters who have clearly outproduced him on the whole during that span. His slash stats, .315/.396/.462, indicate that he is still well suited to the leadoff role when a lefty is on the mound. Since they face a lefty starter roughly a quarter of the time*, we’re then dealing with three quarters of the remaining games when analyzing Jeter’s role atop the order.

*Baseball Reference has the exact number on its team splits page, but all 2011 splits pages are blank at the time of writing, so I am SOL on the exact number.

Let’s see how this stacks up when we compare the number of times both Gardner and Jeter project to reach base against righties the rest of the way. To get an approximation of OBP, I’ll use each player’s numbers against righties from the last two seasons. I’d like to go back to 2009 as well, but it’s clear that both Gardner and Jeter have changed dramatically as players since then. It would make for a larger sample, but i don’t think it would be fair to the analysis.

Jeter has batted 718 times against right-handed pitching in the last two years and has reached base safely 220 times, good for a .307 OBP. Gardner has hit 631 times against righties and has reached base 233 times, good for a .373 OBP. If we take these rates and put them into the context of 263 PA* we get Jeter on base 81 times and Gardner on base 98 times. The difference of 17 times on base can be huge, since it means 17 more opportunities for Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and even Robinson Cano to drive in runners. But it’s also 17 runners in the span of 59 games, or one runner every 3.5 games. Is one base runner every 3.5 games worth demoting Jeter?

*The leadoff man will get approximately 350 PA the rest of the way, and so figuring a quarter of them will come against lefties, that leaves 263 against righties.

Let’s take this a step further, even, and plug in everyone’s 2010-2011 numbers against righties into Dave Pinto’s lineup analysis tool. With Jeter at leadoff and Gardner ninth the Yankees would score 5.434 runs per game. With a completely optimized lineup they’d score 5.524 runs per game, and with a lineup that most closely resembles the Gardner first, Jeter eighth or ninth order they’d score 5.518 runs per game. But let’s just take the optimized one. The lineup with Jeter atop against righties would score 321 runs in the 59 (theoretical) remaining games against right-handed starters, and the Gardner-led lineup would score 326 runs. The difference, then, doesn’t seem very large.

There are things that the lineup analysis tool cannot comprehend, such as quality of at-bats. In that department, Gardner is clearly the favorable option. Overall Gardner is clearly the best person to beat leadoff against righties; almost all of the evidence points to that fact. But just as there are factors that go beyond the lineup analysis tool, there are factors that go beyond lineup optimization. There are egos to handle, and a wrong move can have further effects. We can’t measure those, and so we can’t pinpoint their effects on the team. But they do exist, so the least we can do is acknowledge them before moving on.

While Brett Garndner is the preferred option atop the lineup against right-handed pitching, the difference between he and Jeter the rest of the season might not be so great. The Yankees will certainly get more opportunities, but with the averages point to far fewer than we might expect. The Yankees will have the advantage of an additional base runner every 3.5 games, and will score on average six more runs during the rest of the season against RHP, but is that worth the drama of moving Jeter? For every move, after all, there are unforseen consequences, and I’m not sure it’s worth the risk right now. It’s the preferred and optimal move, but it’s understandable why the Yankees wouldn’t do it.

The Obligatory Juan Rivera Post

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

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since Juan Rivera made his big league debut with the Yankees, when he earned a September call-up in 2001. Baseball America considered him one of the game’s top 100 best prospects before the 2002 and 2003 seasons, and Rivera hit a respectable .262/.302/.427 with eight homers and one golf cart-related injury in 280 plate appearances for the Yankees before being traded to the Expos as part of the Javy Vazquez package.

Rivera bounced from the Expos to the Angels to the Blue Jays in the eight years since the trade, hitting .278/.329/.445 (105 OPS+) during that time. The Blue Jays designated the now 33-year-old for assignment over the weekend, so let’s look to see if he could potentially fill a need for the Yankees…

The Pros

  • Rivera’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to hit left-handed pitching. He tagged southpaws for a .327/.400/.509 batting line in just 65 plate appearances for Toronto this year, but from 2008-2010 he hit .282/.334/.515 in over 400 plate appearances against lefties.
  • Rivera has some serious contact skills, swinging and missing just 7.4% of the time in his career with a 12.9% strikeout rate. Even his 2011 marks of 8.4% and 16.6%, respectively, are better than league average despite been career worsts (min. 200 PA). He’s walked more than he’s struck out against lefties this year (eight to six), and from 2008-2010 it’s 30 walks to 34 strikeouts. Anything remotely close to 1:1 is spectacular.
  • All of the advanced metrics (UZR, DRS, Total Zone) consider his defense to be about average (but no better) in the outfield corners. That’s a win when you consider what his role would be. He’s also dabbled at first base throughout the years.

The Cons

  • Rivera should be considered nothing more than a platoon player. He’s hit just .219/.276/.318 against righties this year (210 PA) and .246/304/.403 last year (293 PA). Last season’s performance isn’t terrible, but he’s clearly at his best when facing pitchers of the opposite hand.
  • He’s not a patient hitter, walking in just 6.7% of his career plate appearances and seeing only 3.51 pitches per plate appearances. It’s worth noting that his 8.0% walk rate this year is a career best.
  • Rivera does not project as a Type-A or B free agent at the moment, and he’s far enough from the cutoff that he probably can’t play his way into compensation pick territory in the second half.

With a $5.25M salary this season, it’s pretty safe to say that Rivera will clear waivers. The Blue Jays figure to find a decent number of teams interested in acquiring him via trade if they’re willing to get some of that money, though in recent years we’ve seen GM Alex Anthopoulos be pretty hesitant to trade within the division. Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a big issue for a spare part like Rivera.

Andruw Jones is hitting .234/.310/.453 in 71 plate appearances against lefties this year, and his numbers over the last few seasons (.219/.352/.428 vs. LHP from 2008-2010) suggest that Rivera is the better platoon option at the plate. Andruw’s not the defender he once was, but he’s probably still better than Rivera, even if it’s just marginally. His $2M salary is not going away, but I think there are legitimate reasons to eat the rest of that salary and bring Rivera aboard if he winds up in the open market. I wouldn’t give up anything of value to acquire him in a trade, nor would I absorb that salary on waivers, but as a free agent for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum? Then go for it. I’ll be surprised if he makes it that far though.