Spring Training Samples

Bust. (AP)

The obvious pro of Spring Training is that baseball is back! Horray! Baseball players! They are truly wonderful and amazing creatures, capable of feats none of us could ever accomplish. I once attempted to play second base in the local rec softball league, constantly mentally telling myself to just do it exactly like Robinson Cano does. As you can imagine, this did not work out, and not only did I make a total idiot of myself, but a ground ball took a funny bounce, destroyed my shin, and had me limping for the rest of the day. After that, I decided to stick to writing about and watching baseball.

Anyway, even in Spring Training, most of the players could probably whoop us, even the veteran double-A guys who don’t know what else to do with themselves. They’re rusty, especially the big-timers like Sabathia. And I think getting on them for having a first poor Spring Training outing is, quite frankly, a little stupid.

First of all, the whole point of Spring Training is to get back into the groove. Baseball’s all timing, and when someone hasn’t thrown a ~90 MPH ball of cork at you in months, it can take some time to get used to that again. Likewise, if you haven’t thrown that ball in a while – not at full speed, facing a live batter, of course – it takes time to put all the parts back together. Throwing a baseball is a complex biomechanical action, and I’m not holding it against anyone who takes a few weeks to get back into the swing of things, consider the minuscule percentage of people who can even figure out what the correct swing of things is.

Secondly, one outing in any event should be treated as too small a sample to judge, and an outing of two innings should be a mere blip on the radar. If it doesn’t count, that seems like it should be even more insignificant on the ‘things Yankees fans should worry about from the team’ checklist. Even if Sabathia had gone out and bombed two innings in a regular season game, there’s simply not enough to worry about.

So, can we stop getting on Nova, Sabathia and Cano for not being able to put it together just yet? They’ve been playing baseball for a week. It doesn’t count. They’re obviously (ok, according to Girardi, not Nova) going to be in the lineup/rotation. It’s not like we’re dealing with scrubs who, if they don’t perform in the spring, aren’t going to be on the team. These guys are using Spring Training to experiment, re-adjust and recalibrate themselves to being utterly awesome. A little turbulence should be expected, in my humble opinion. So chill out.

On the flip side of this, if you do make it your goal in life to be stressed out about five Spring Training innings from your fourth place Cy Young finisher from last year, I have a better place for you to put those feelings. This feeling-adjustment fulfills all the necessary requirements of irrational Spring Training rage: A) The players in question are playing way differently than they’re expected. B) The samples sizes are extremely small. C) We know if they’re going to the Yankees or not.

1. Gus Molina (3-for-3)

Here we have a catcher with some potential, making very good contact and getting on base. Quite frankly, I don’t even know why we bother with Russell Martin behind the plate. It’s obvious Martin has all the power (he’s 2-for-8 with a double and 3 strikeouts) and none of the other skills. He might work out better at first base, because while him and Mark Teixeira have similar numbers, Martin has all the power.

2. Jose Gil (2-for-3)

On second thought, let’s just release Mark Texieira and put Gil at first base. He’s raking in spring training, with two doubles, an RBI, and a walk. That’s the making of a potential MVP right there, I think. Especially considering that he probably won’t bunt as much as Teixeira has been talking about doing. No bunting allowed. Ever.

3. Dan Burawa (0.00 ERA)

Really, those shiny zeroes say it all. Here we have a genuine ace who’s going to toil away at some minor league level where no one can appreciate his genius. Obviously, what the Yankees should do is demote Nova and put Burawa in his pace. While the man has given up three hits, he’s also got a strikeout and generates plenty of groundballs to make a successful job in the majors. Anyone who has a 0.00 ERA is pretty good. Exhibit A: Nick Swisher.

Levine: $189 million plan includes Cano and Granderson

Roughly three-quarters of the emails we receive concern various aspects of the $189 million luxury cap for 2014. How will the Yanks get below this? we’re asked. Can they do it with Player X and Player Y? The most frequent of these questions center on Robinson Cano and, to a slightly lesser extent, Curtis Granderson, both of whom become free agents after the 2013 season. Yankees President Randy Levine spoke to Jon Heyman, and he seems to believe the Yankees can retain both. “The plan contemplates (Robinson) Cano, (Curtis) Granderson and a full championship team,” Levine said. It is certainly possible, but little will have to go wrong in the Yankees’ plan for them to achieve that goal.

Pineda up to 93 mph

According to Erik Boland, Michael Pineda reached 93 with his fastball during the first inning of his appearance today. That’s a tick faster than he threw this past Monday, when he topped out at 91 mph. That’s a bit reassuring, at least. It goes along with what Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs on Tuesday, noting that Pineda is not a guy who has to fire bullets every single time. Relatedly, it’s interesting to hear that Brian Cashman mentioned that he’d read Cameron’s article (via Bryan Hoch).

Where Are They Now: Steve Swindal

Swindal and Joe Torre in 2007. (Bukaty/AP)

Five years ago, Steve Swindal was the heir apparent to the Yankees. The husband of Jennifer Steinbrenner and a general partner of the team since 1998, Swindal had been appointed George Steinbrenner‘s successor back in 2005. That plan changed in early-2007, when he was arrested for DUI and Jennifer filed for divorce a month later. The team bought out his ownership stake that November, and The Boss instead handed the reigns to his son Hal.

After his time with the Yankees ended, Swindal served as the head of a marine towing company in Florida for a while. He’s now back in baseball though, having launched a youth academy in the Dominican Republic with Abel Guerra (the Yanks’ former VP of International Ops) and Hans Hertell (former U.S. ambassador to the D.R.) in 2009 according CBS New York. They house, feed, train, and educate young prospects in exchange for a portion of their future signing bonuses. More than 40 prospects have gone on to sign with a big league club after a stint at Swindal’s academy. “[It’s] the nicest academy of any agent,” said Rafael Perez, MLB’s director of Dominican operations. “And they produce a lot of players.”

Swindal’s son still works for the team in stadium operations (in the Bronx), and his daughter Haley sings the national anthem before games a few times a year. There doesn’t appear to be any animosity on either side, and in fact Swindal was at the club’s Spring Training complex last weekend. “I’m always going be pulling for the Yankees,” he said. “That’s never going to go away.”

As Ben wrote soon after the DUI and divorce, Swindal was seen as the perfect heir to Steinbrenner’s throne back then. “Swindal was everything that George was and more,” he wrote. “He exhibited the same win-at-all-monetary-costs attitude that Yankee fans have come to crave, but he also exhibited a whole lot of Baseball Smarts. He knew the value of constructing a Major League team through sound investment and an organization that could develop a steady stream of home-grown players to complement the free agent signings.”

That all sounds well and good, but we’ll never know how the course of Yankees history would have changed had Swindal taken over the team as planned rather than Hal. Perhaps all this talk of getting under the luxury tax threshold in 2014 would not exist, or perhaps the reduced payroll would have happened years ago. It’s hard to complain about the team right now, but there’s still that what-if element. “It’s a strange turn,” said Swindal to CBSNY. “Life is going to be full of turns and changes. It’s how you deal with it that’s important. I had the best ten years of my life with the Yankees, of my professional life. I don’t regret a minute of it.”

[h/t HBT]

2012 Season Preview: Saving Runs

So good that MLB told him he can't use a glove in 2012 just to make it fair. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Like a number of other teams, the Yankees ignored defense for quite some time in the mid-aughts. Maybe ignored is the wrong word, but it definitely wasn’t a priority. The 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history, but they still managed to win 95 games thanks to a dominant offense and some good timing (pythag. 90 wins). That formula doesn’t cut it these days.

By no means are the 2012 Yankees a defensive dynamo, but they’ve improved defensively at a number of positions in recent years by shedding poor glovemen like Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon. UZR says the Yankees were the eighth best defensive team in baseball last year, saving 23.2 more runs than expected. At the same time, their -15 DRS ranks 21st out of the 30 team. Different systems give different answers, which is why this defense thing is so hard to pin down these days. Let’s take a look at the Yankees who provide value when not in the batter’s box…

Robinson Cano
Cano is a good example of just how imperfect defensive metrics are these days. UZR doesn’t like him one bit, rating him as a below average defender in each of the last four years and in six of his seven seasons. DRS, on the other hands, says he’s been above average in each of the last three years and in four of the last five. Total Zone says he’s been a bit below average the last two years, but above average the four years before that. FRAA? That says he’s been above average defensively in every season of his career except for 2010, when he registered at -0.5.

Which system is right? Probably all of them to a certain extent, but it goes to show that there’s still no right answer with this defensive stuff. Overall, I think Robbie’s a pretty good second baseman, particularly on plays to his right and around the bag on the double play pivot. Balls hit to his left have been a bit of a problem throughout the years, but I think he’s still a net positive, all things considered. No one will ever confuse Cano for Roberto Alomar or Chase Utley on defense, but he’s a solid glove guy that does his best work near the bag. That double play pivot is just as sweet as his swing.

Brett Gardner
You can make a legitimate case that Gardner is the best defensive player in baseball. He combines his speed with excellent reads for top notch range, and his throwing has improved dramatically over the last two years or so. His arm isn’t terribly strong, but it is accurate. Anytime a ball is hit in the air towards left, I’m pretty confident that it’ll be turned into an out these days.

One thing to keep in mind is that Gardner’s ridiculous defensive ratings — +50.9 UZR and +35 DRS last two years — are relative to other left fielders, and most other left fielders are slow, plodding, bat-first types. I don’t want to take anything away from Brett because he is an elite defender, but if the Yankees were to move him to center, he would not be a +20 defender on an annual basis. He’d be more along the lines of +10 or so. That’s still really awesome, and when it comes to saving runs with the glove, no one on the Yankees is better and very few around the league are even comparable.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
Catcher defense is a tough thing to quantify, but we’ve gotten better throughout the years. Although he’s been below average at blocking passed pitches in recent years, PitchFX data has shown that Martin is one of the very best at framing pitches and saving runs by turning balls into strikes. With an average arm that consistently throws out 30% of attempted base stealers or so, Russ handles himself well behind the plate and is an asset to the team defensively.

Of course, Martin looks like the greatest catcher ever compared to his predecessor Jorge Posada. Not to dump on Posada, but he was a bad defensive catcher and flat out abysmal later in his career, and it could be clouding our judgment when watching Martin or any other Yankees catcher. The few advanced metrics we have do a good job of showing that while he’s a good defensive backstop, Martin isn’t great. He does the job throwing out baserunners, frames pitches exceptionally well, and won’t allow and excessive amount of pitches to get by him.

Mark Teixeira
Defensive metrics still haven’t mastered the first base position, which has more to do with straight glovework than range. Tex isn’t fleet of foot but he does guard the line well and keeps his fair share of balls from getting through the hole. That has more to do with positioning than actual quickness. He’s also a strong thrower, which is still amazing to see after watching Giambi airmail throws for the better part of a decade.

I think Teixeira’s best defensive work comes when he’s scooping throws at first or snagging bad hops, stuff like that. There’s no way to measure this accurately, so it’s completely anecdotal. He saves the other infielders errors by scooping those poor throws, but more importantly saves pitches for the guys on the mound. Tex sees more defensive work than every non-battery position on the field, which is a good thing for the Yankees given his skills.

* * *

I think Alex Rodriguez is worth a mention here, because he looked fantastic on defense late in the season and especially in the ALDS. He didn’t hit much after the knee and thumb injuries, but he still moves well around the bag and makes a lot of tough plays look easy because of his strong arm. I also think A-Rod is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. He always seems to makes the correct decision when it comes to going for the double play, looking back the lead runner, charging the bunt, all that stuff. Alex won’t win a Gold Glove, but by no means is he a liability at the hot corner.