The Raul Ibanez Problem

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, I wrote this post tearing into Marcus Thames for his poor Spring Training as well as the Yankees for counting on him as their primary lefty masher heading into the season. He looked old and slow in camp, then went on to exceed every expectation during the regular season by producing a .365 wOBA in 237 plate appearances, which was far more playing time than he was supposed to receive. Thames had history on his side and the Yankees stuck with him despite the ugly Spring Training numbers, and their patience was rewarded.

A similar scenario is playing out this spring with Raul Ibanez, who has been awful with the bat (a single, a double, and two walks in 33 plate appearances) and is showing signs of being toast. There are obvious differences between he and the 2010 version of Thames, specifically age (39 vs. 33), handedness (left vs. right), role (DH vs. OF), and price ($1.1M vs. minor league deal), but otherwise things are pretty similar. History says Ibanez will hit right-handed pitchers in the long run, but the short-term has been ugly and uninspiring. It’s real easy to envision the guy carrying this performance over into the regular season and becoming a bit of a problem for the Yankees.

I haven’t watched many of Ibanez’s at-bats this spring only because I usually don’t pay much attention to any hitters in March. I’m a pitching guy so I watch the arms but don’t focus on the bats. I’ve seen a few people say that Ibanez hasn’t hit anything hard all month and I’m inclined to believe them only because I haven’t been paying attention. It’s a bad sign if true, but at the same time I still have a hard time putting stock into any Spring Training performance. We’ve seen too many guys hit the snot out of the ball in March and go back into hibernation during the regular season, and vice versa.

I can’t imagine many of us had high expectations for Ibanez when the signing was announced, but that would have been true regardless of who they brought in to DH. All of the quality bat-only guys were off the market by the time Jesus Montero was traded away, so the Yankees were stuck picking from a group of old, declining players. True Yankee™ Johnny Damon wasn’t guaranteed to perform any better even though he probably made a little more sense. If they have to cut Ibanez at some point, they’ll do it. Simple as that. He’ll get some time to prove himself, and if he doesn’t they’ll find someone else. The Yankees survived a below average DH situation last year, and they have more than enough firepower to do it again.

2012 Season Preview: Left-on-Left Production

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Only 10% of the population is left-handed, and I don’t think any industry rewards southpaw-ness more than baseball. Lefty hitters are typically at the platoon advantage 65-75% of the time while lefty pitchers will get chance after chance to contribute something, anything at the big league level. It’s good work if you can get it.

Given the short right field porch at both the old and new Yankee Stadium, the team’s history has been dominated by power left-handed bats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, and Don Mattingly. Left-handed pitchers are also at a premium to help prevent the other team from capitalizing on the right field dimensions, which is why the club’s all-time best pitchers are southpaws like Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Ron Guidry, and Andy Pettitte. The current incarnation of the Yankees is no different, with a group of left-handed guys who do their very best work against same-sided players.

Robinson Cano
The best hitter on the Yankees also happens to be one of the very best left-handed hitters against left-handed pitching in all of baseball. Since the start of the 2009 season, only Joey Votto (.402 wOBA) and Chase Utley (.390 wOBA) have outhit Cano (.371 wOBA) against same-side pitchers (min. 500 PA). His 31 homers against southpaws over the last three years are the third most in baseball among all hitters, regardless of hand. Only Albert Pujols (40) and Mark Teixeira (34) have more.

Cano’s ability to hang in against left-handed pitching stems from his freakish contact skills, which allows him to get the fat part of the bat on both fastballs in and breaking balls away. He uses the entire field and is basically un-matchup-able. That’s why he’s one of the game’s most dangerous hitters.

Curtis Granderson
Once upon a time, Granderson was completely useless against left-handed pitchers. From 2006 through mid-August 2010, Curtis hit just .208/.264/.326 with a 24.5% strikeout rate in 767 plate appearances against lefties. That all changed 20 months ago, when hitting coach Kevin Long revamped the center fielder’s setup and stroke. Since then, Granderson has hit .275/.354/.575 in 275 plate appearances against lefties, which is almost identical to his .255/.366/.545 line against right-handers.

No hitter — right-handed or left-handed — hit more homers off lefty pitchers in 2011 than Granderson, who had 16. Teixeira had 15 and no one else had more than a dozen. Jay Bruce had the next highest total by a left-handed hitter at 11, so none of those fellas was particularly close to Curtis. Granderson’s transformation from platoon player to MVP candidate has been just remarkable, and there are going to be a lot of opposing managers tricked into using inferior LOOGYs in the late innings when Grandy and Cano are hitting back-to-back in the 2-3 spots this season. It will be glorious.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

CC Sabathia
One of the two or three best left-handed pitchers on the planet, Sabathia has been tormenting same-side hitters with his fastball-slider combination for a decade now. He’s held lefty batters to a .221/.272/.322 batting line with a 30.3% strikeout rate in 692 plate appearances during his three years in New York, which looks a whole lot like the old version of Granderson. Only eleven of the 55 homers he’s given up since the start of 2009 have come off the bat of lefties.

Because of his dominance of left-handed hitters, opposing managers often stack their lineups with right-handers whenever Sabathia starts. Only 22.3% of the hitters he’s faced in pinstripes have been lefties, well below the ~50% league average*. Thankfully Sabathia is very effective against right-handed batters as well — .249/.308/.371 over the last three years — thanks to his knockout changeup. CC’s best work comes against his fellow southpaws though, and he’s one of the best in the business.

* The RH-LH split for pitchers is approximately 75-25, but it’s just about 50-50 for hitters when accounting for switch-hitters.

Andy Pettitte
Pettitte’s surprise return last week will give the Yankees a second left-handed starter assuming he comes through his preparation fine and wants to see this comeback thing through. He’s held lefty batters to a .246/.286/.352 batting line with a 25.5% strikeout rate during the New Stadium era, which obviously includes no data for 2011. Andy is a bit more saavy than Sabathia, relying on three different 80-something mile-an-hour fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, and cutter — and a curveball to neutralize same-side hitters. Whether or not he retains that effectiveness after a year-long hiatus remains to be seen.

Boone Logan
The Yankees only true lefty specialist at the moment, Boone’s performance against lefties last season wasn’t exactly special. They tagged him for a .260/.328/.462 batting line in 2011, far worse than his career performance coming into the year (.248/.322/.355). The good news is that his underlying performance was very strong, featuring a 28.8% strikeout rate, a 5.9% walk rate, and a 40.6% ground ball rate. That will typically lead to excellent results, so Logan really doesn’t have to chance much going forward. Keep missing bats and limiting walks, and the results should fall in line.

There are a number of second lefty reliever candidates in camp, highlighted by Clay Rapada at the moment. He’s stood out the most from a group that includes fellow non-roster invitee Mike O’Connor and Rule 5 Draft pick Cesar Cabral. With one bullpen spot up for grabs, Rapada is the favorite right now should the Yankees decide to take a second southpaw given their April schedule. Even if they take another righty, the Yankees will have plenty of left-on-left firepower in 2012.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 19th, 2012

Record Last Week: 3-4 (29 RS, 29 RA)
Spring Training Record: 8-9 (67 RS, 72 RA)
Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, vs. Pirates (Tues. on YES/MLBN), @ Rays (Weds. on ESPN), @ Red Sox (Thurs. on YES/ESPN), vs. Twins (Fri. on YES/MLBN, split squad), @ Phillies (Fri. on MLBN, split squad), @ Tigers (Sat.), vs. Tigers (Sun. on YES)

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Update: X-rays negative after Cano hit by pitch in hand

10:11pm: Via Bryan Hoch, x-rays were negative. “He’s fine,” said Joe Girardi. And exhale.

9:09pm: Robinson Cano left tonight’s game in obvious pain after getting hit by a pitch in the left hand. He actually swung at the pitch and struck out. Kevin Russo took over at second base. We’ll update this post when more information becomes available.

ST Game Thread: Mason’s Debut

(Photo via MiLB.com)

The Yankees are on the road tonight, meaning only four regulars are required to be in the lineup and a lot of non-roster/minor league guys will play in the game. One of the guys scheduled to come off the bench is the 20-year-old Mason Williams, one of the team’s very best prospects who is getting his first taste of big league action in camp. I had Williams second on my annual Top 30 Prospects List, mostly because of the athleticism and overwhelming tools. Pretty much the only thing he lacks right now is power, but hopefully that will come at some point. Here’s the starting lineup…

CF Brett Gardner
SS Eduardo Nunez
2B Robinson Cano
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Raul Ibanez
3B Bill Hall
RF Justin Maxwell
LF Dewayne Wise
C Gus Molina

RHP Ivan Nova

Available Pitchers: RHP George Kontos, LHP Clay Rapada, LHP Cesar Cabral, LHP Juan Cedeno, LHP Mike O’Connor, RHP David Phelps, RHP D.J. Mitchell, and RHP Adam Warren are all available.

Available Position Players: C Jose Gil, 1B Jorge Vazquez, 2B Kevin Russo, SS Doug Bernier, 3B Brandon Laird, LF Colin Curtis, CF Mason Williams, RF Chris Dickerson, and DH Cole Garner will replace the starters.

Tonight’s game starts at 7pm ET and can be seen on MLB Network. The blackout has been lifted in the Tri-State Area. Enjoy the game.

David Robertson Update: Robertson threw 25 pitches off a bullpen mound today and felt fine. It was his first time throwing off a mound since suffering that bone bruise in his right foot. His goal is to get in a game by next weekend. [Sweeny Murti]

Yankees spent close to $3M on international players in 2011

The Yankees have traditionally been one of the biggest spenders on the international market, but last year they only spent approximately $2.93M on players according to Ben Balder. That ranks 11th out of the 30 teams. The Rangers were by far the biggest spenders last year at $12.83M, with most of it going to two outfielders: Nomar Mazara ($4.95M) and Ronald Guzman ($3.45M). Those are the first and third largest bonuses in history. The Yankees top signing was Dominican third baseman Miguel Andujar at $750k.

Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, every team will be allowed to spend just $2.9M on international free agents in 2012 starting July 2nd. The spending pool will be based on winning percentage starting in 2013, with the good clubs getting the least amount of money to spend. Once a team exceeds their spending pool, they lose future international free agent money. Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler can sign for any amount prior to July 2nd, and it sounds like he’s going to get close to $20M, if not more.

Heathcott expects to be out until May

It’s been a rough few years for 2009 first round pick Slade Heathcott, who signed for $2.2M and has since undergone two left (throwing) shoulder surgeries and battled alcoholism. As the now 21-year-old outfielder says in the video above, the latest shoulder procedure is expected to delay the start of his season and keep him out until May.

“I’m trying not to rush it,” he said. “I’m trying to take as long as possible without being aggressive. I’m trying to be in games around May.”

Heathcott is known for his very aggressive and hard-nosed style of play, which has been a bit of detriment. He was limited to mostly DH duty as a high school senior because of a torn ACL and a left shoulder injury he suffered diving after a ball. This latest surgery is his third major left shoulder problem in the last four years. Since signing, he’s only played in 132 of ~240 possible games. That’s a lot of development time he can’t get back.

I had Heathcott 13th on my annual Top 30 Prospects List, though Baseball America, Keith Law, and FanGraphs each had him in the top ten. He was having a really nice season in 2011 before the injury (.279/.347/.437 in 242 PA), so now he’s got to just focus on staying on the field. The kid just won’t be able to get any better if he doesn’t stop getting hurt.