Wild Card Weekend Open Thread

This weekend is the first round of the NFL playoffs, so use this thread to talk about the games. The Saints and Seahawks kick off at 4:30pm ET (NBC) this afternoon, then later tonight we’ve got the Jets and Colts. Sunday brings the Ravens and the Chiefs (1pm ET, CBS) and the Packers at the Eagles (4:30pm ET, FOX). Enjoy.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

I’m going to come out and say it right here, even though you probably already know this: Derek Jeter is a terrible defensive shortstop. I don’t care how many Gold Gloves he wins. I don’t care how many times he falls into the stands and cuts his face. I don’t care how many times he ends up between first base and home plate to cut off a terrible throw and backhand it to the catcher. While these plays were stellar, they don’t say anything about his everyday fielding ability. The fact is, his range has gone from mediocre to bad to worse. Since 2002 (when UZR was first recorded), he has had two seasons in the positive: 6.4 in 2009, and 0.9 in 2002. Every other year was in the negatives, the worst being a whopping -17.9 in 2007. That means that in that year, merely having Jeter at shortstop gave up nearly 18 runs to opposing teams.

But that’s all right. You know why? Because he can hit, and that’s not a very common trait among shortstops. Through 2000-2009, Jeter put up the best batting average of all shortstops with 500 plate appearances (.317), ranked second in WAR (47.5), and ranked third in wOBA and OPS behind Alex Rodriguez and Hanley Ramirez. Impressively enough, he managed to do all of this while posting a hideous -37.8 UZR. That’s even worse than Yuniesky Betancourt’s -32.4. Once you’re worse than Betancourt, you’re pretty bad. Maybe it’s even worth trading in that bat for someone who can actually move.

So, let’s swap out our relatively hard-hitting shortstop for one who deserves those Gold Gloves and see if there’s any team improvement. In the same time span, Omar Vizquel was the leading shortstop according UZR, posting an impressive 49.0 on the nose. He committed only 58 errors, a little over a third of Jeter’s total, 158. If Vizquel was the Yankees shortstop through the 00’s, he single-handedly would have stopped opponents from scoring 67 runs. Sounds pretty nice, don’t you think? In 2008, the Bombers lost 18 games by one run. Vizquel could have helped turn those games to wins, catapulted the team into the playoffs, and helped them win the World Series. Even better, the Yankees would still have 31 runs to put towards games in other years. It’s too bad you can’t just pick up runs and stick them wherever you need them.

It sounds nice so far, but now we have to take out Jeter’s offense – can’t have your cake and eat it too. Vizquel batted .270/.339/.370 and managed a wOBA of only .312, way under Jeter’s .374. Jeter also hit three home runs for every one of Vizquel’s, 161 to 44. Even if every one of those dingers was a solo shot, Jeter would still create more than enough runs to make up for the 67 he’s giving up out in the field. In the end, Vizquel racked up only 18.8 WAR, 28.7 less than Jeter. Even with his awesome glove, there’s just no way for Vizquel to make up for the hitting prowess he lacks. Despite Vizquel’s higher defensive capabilities, Jeter’s offense leads to far more wins. Even in Jeter’s rough 2010 season, he still managed to out-wOBA and out-WAR Vizquel while putting up a significantly worse UZR, though Vizquel spent most of his time at third base.

The captain isn’t the only player who’s shown that an above-average offense can make up for a subpar defense: Jorge Posada threw out only 28% of base runners in 100 games in 2009, but he also hit 22 home runs and managed to post a 125 OPS+ and 3.7 WAR. Not bad for a 37-year-old catcher, really. Gerald Laird, on the other hand, threw out an impressive 42% of base runners in 138 games, but only managed to post a 1.5 WAR due to his amazing noodle bat: .225/.306/.320, with a meager four homers and 65 OPS+.

The Yankees have never been interested in stocking up on great defenders (the team posted an abysmal -137 UZR in 2005), and they’ve proved before that it’s a perfectly fine strategy to use.  It’s predicted that Montero will follow in Posada’s footsteps as all-hit-no-catch backstop, and quite frankly, I’m perfectly fine with that. Players like Montero, Jeter and Posada show that the Yankees prefer to outfit the lineup with capable bats up and down, even from fielders you don’t expect to see offense from. It’s definitely worth the few extra bags that may be taken, because the result is the best run differential in baseball for two years in a row, and if all those extra runs means a dribbler gets by Jeter every so often, I’ll live with it just fine.

Open Thread: J-E-T-S

Dude on the left can't be bothered. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Yes, this is a baseball site, but every January we like to take advantage of the offseason and show a little support for the local gridiron gangs. The Jets are in Indianapolis tonight, taking on big brother and the Colts in the Wild Card Round. The game starts at 8pm ET and can be seen on NBC. Talk about it here if you so choose.

/My First RAB Post’d

In 1981, Rich Gossage led all all A.L. relievers with a 4.2 MSAR (Mustache Splendor Above Replacement). (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Let me first say that I’ve been a huge RAB fan almost since its inception. Even before there was “The Big Three,” “Wednesday Night Open Thread,” “Friday Live Chat,” “Mailbag,” “Fan Confidence Poll” “Holding Steady at 9,” “Bloversimplification,” “The RAB Radio Show,” “This,” “ “Co-sign,” “The Stats We Use: wOBA,” “Days of Yore,” “getting Torre’d,” “Proctorized,” “You know the drill, just be cool,” “What Went Wrong,” “What Went Right,” “The Mystery Pitcher,” “Prospect Profile: Caleb Cotham,” “My Aaron Heilman Nightmare,” “The Case for Felipe Lopez,” “BUT TEH 8TH INNING!!!1!” “The Obligatory Hideki Okajima Post,” “Food for Thought: Robbie Cano,” “/MSM’d,” “/Kay’d,” “/bexy’d,” Rose baiting, and “10 Undeniable Reasons Why the Yanks Must Sign Shea Hillenbrand,” there was Ben, Mike, and Joe posting insightful baseball analysis from the mother ship to just a handful of us – relatively speaking.

Qualitatively and stylistically, the typical RAB post back in ‘07 bore a striking resemblance to the current ones while being a welcome departure from what I was seeing on most other Yankees blogs at the time. Rather than issuing ad hominem attacks over Brian Cashman’s occasional miscues, promulgating irrational exuberance over a new pitching acquisition or drawing unsubstantiated generalizations about why A-Rod wasn’t “clutch,” the guys at RAB chose a far more measured, evidence-based approach on which to formulate their arguments. Which meant predicating their positions upon a bedrock of long-term statistical trends rather than small sample sizes, gut feelings, conventional wisdom, or liberal usage of the CAPS LOCK KEY to drive home their respective points. Not only did the RABis offer a rare online venue for in-depth baseball analysis, they did so in an unpretentious, user-friendly manner that enabled slightly more visceral fans like myself to embrace a more empirical approach to the national pastime. With that said, I’ve always sort of had a thing for stats – even if their main utility for me was to show up the opposition. As a kid who had once been sent to the principal’s office for holding court in homeroom over why Tim Raines – and not Vince Coleman or Lenny Dykstra – was the best lead-off hitter in the NL, reading RAB put me smack back into baseball nerd heaven. Except now, sans Lumberg glasses, orthodontic headgear, pegged Z-Cavaricci jeans, and a one-way ticket to after school detention, I could learn, analyze, and debate from the comfort of my Snuggie and relative safety of my parents’ basement (/RAB meme’d).

Despite my undying loyalty to and appreciation for this blog, it should be known up front that I don’t always hew to the prevailing RAB party line. While I do agree that statistical data should be given primacy in most cases, I also see value in the more primal and mystical elements of baseball, which are virtually impossible to quantify and mostly verboten among sabermetricicians: I think that “good” team chemistry isn’t necessarily a product of winning and often goes deeper than merely whether or not teammates like each other, that most players who look like they’re mailing it in likely are (with Robbie Cano being a notable exception), that having a perceived “shutdown bullpen” has a psychological impact on the opposing team that supersedes its projected statistical advantage, and that, yes, the concept of clutch – while overused by underprepared, hyperbolic sportscasters – does in fact exist beyond subjective and selective observation. (Anyone who’s ever had to perform a complex task at a high level in front of a large audience can probably attest to this.)

Maybe my less-than-progressive approach to baseball analysis is a generational thing. I am, after all, a kid of the 80s – an era in which the value of a player was often measured by “grit,”  “gumption,” “hustle,” “horse-sense,” and the most eminent metric of all: mustache splendor. It was a time when invoking slugging percentage as a hitting statistic was not only viewed as pretentiously esoteric but plenty grounds for being stigmatized as an “egg head,” a “wise-ass,” or a “wussy.” (Or, in my case, being ceaselessly pegged in the head during dodgeball tilts by Bobby DiStraccio and his gang of furry minions.) Imagine today arguing with a random patron at a neighborhood bar that Pitcher X is better than Pitcher Y based on Pitcher X’s superior BABIP, and you can probably get the gist of what it was like back in ’87 to build a similar argument around something as rudimentary as ERA.

Oh, and regarding doing that whole BABIP argument in a bar thing? Don’t.

Sadly, a generation later, some of that antiquated mindset remains. For instance, how many broadcasters from the Hawk Harrelson-Joe Morgan-Mike Francessa school of baseball analysis insistently cling to the notion that wins are the be-all statistical metric for pitching excellence, or that one’s eyes are the best measurement of a ballplayer? And, as many of us have witnessed during those seemingly endless 20-minute stretches between RAB posts, when our unslakable minds seek out even the most banal of Yankees-specific content, there are legions of other posters on countless Yankees blogs who embrace the same stubbornly uninformed mindset. That the guys at RAB have carved out a niche that allows differences of opinions and open debate that’s predicated on evidence rather than juvenile notions, stubborn prejudices, and sweeping pronouncements has been a boon to a community of Yankees fans who yearned for something more than “A-Rod Sucks: Discuss.”

When I’m not teaching high school, grading stacks upon stacks of essays, doing reading for grad school, or writing, I spend much of what’s left of my spare time on the couch with my wife, Katie, indoctrinating her in the finer points of Yankee fandom and the virtues of advanced statistics. The high point of this past season came not on a walk-off Juan Miranda hit, but when Katie complained out loud that the Tampa Rays home TV feed didn’t include on base percentage in their in-game stats package. As if that didn’t already make me feel like the luckiest guy alive, she later inquired as to why “that idiot” (Joe Magrane – go figure) insisted on belaboring the fact that the Yankees had a $200 million payroll. Needless to say, it was incomprehensively hot. Had she added something about RBIs being more a product of circumstance than slugging skill, I would’ve been forced to drive down to Zales and purchase her something shiny and expensive.

Katie, if you’re out there, you had me at “that idiot.”

As for my Yankees allegiance, I’ve been a loyal and vociferous fan ever since my frenemy, Ray, sold me a glove with a plagiarized “Greg” Nettles signature on it for five bucks back in fourth grade. The glove actually served me well throughout Little League and even my first tumultuous year of Babe Ruth. (I was learning a new league.) Ray, on the other hand, ended up moving to Arkansas. Or was it Oklahoma? (Either way, I win.) My all-time favorite player is Dave Winfied, with Rickey Henderson a very close second. In other words, as a Yankees fan, I have absolutely no compunctions about rooting for a “bunch of mercenaries.” Still, I do derive great satisfaction from watching the homegrown kids carve their way into the big leagues. I even rooted like crazy for Ian Kennedy and Austin Jackson this year (and admittedly stewed when Curtis Granderson was mired in his three-month swoon).

My objective in writing for RAB will be to deliver content that serves as a strong complement to its founders – and my new fellow weekend contributors – while still adhering to RAB’s analytical, anti-reactionary platform. I plan on doing some combination of satire and analysis. And I plan on writing anecdotes about my continued struggle to adopt a more rational, learned, “zen” approach to being a Yankee fan, despite my seemingly innate visceral, knee-jerk, Vinnie From Yonkers darker half – which inevitably emerges amidst their annual late-August swoon, brought into full relief by an error-plagued three-game sweep at the hands of the Royals. And so I’m thrilled to have this opportunity, and I hope my posts can come close to matching the excellence and insight that the RABis have provided for the past three-plus years.

When Will Mariano Rivera Surpass Trevor Hoffman?

Really, a painting? (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the post, a little introduction: Hi. I’m Hannah. I really like the Yankees. Been a fan since I was about six years old, actually. The best way to reach me is probably through Twitter (@firstheart42). If you’re interested in knowing more about me, or have questions, comments, concerns, humorous banter, flames, send me a @reply. If you don’t have Twitter, you’re missing out. Now, to more important things.

There’s a reliever that hasn’t come up at all despite the discussion regarding the various bullpens: Trevor Hoffman. Before his disastrous 2010, Hoffman put together an absolutely stellar career, posting a ERA of 2.73, a WHIP of 1.04, and FIP of 4.08. He had 591 regular season saves and was looking to top off his sparkling resume with a nice even 600. Then, for no explainable reason, Hoffman lost it. His fastball velocity dropped and his change-up control suffered, leading to a simply catastrophic 2010. In some ways, Hoffman could be the poster boy for the volatility of relievers: after a fantastic 2009 (helped along by a .233 BABIP against, in comparison to his .266 career), Hoffman hit career lows almost everywhere: his ERA shot up to 5.89, his FIP hit 5.21, he got hit by the homeritis bug with 1.5 HR/9 (as opposed to his 2009’s 0.3 HR/9), and he couldn’t even get a 2:1 ratio on strikeouts to walks. It wasn’t as if something happened over the season: Hoffman blew four saves in April (out of seven opportunities) and continued to perform poorly until before the Brewers stripped him of his closer role in June and gave it John Axford. It took him until September 7th to get his 600th save. On the year, Hoffman got just 10 saves, bring his total up to 601 regular season saves. He did it 15 opportunities. Yeah, that’s right. His save conversation percentage was 66%. What a nightmare. On the list of people in baseball I would not wanted to be in 2010, Trevor Hoffman is way up there.

Hoffman’s a free agent right now and he’s looking for a closing job. A cheap opportunity for whoever misses out on the Soriano Sweepstakes? Maybe. He could certainly retire if he doesn’t find a job and a contract he wants and I’m sure baseball would get by just fine without him.  If anything, he could be a good guy to have in your bullpen in case your current closer pulls a, well, a Trevor Hoffman in 2011.

So, where does that leave Mo? Well, originally this article was going to be ‘Will Mo Catch Hoffman,’ but the more I looked at it, the more obvious it became: of course he will. Assuming Rivera avoids a Hoffman-esque apocalypse (a scenario that even the mere mention of should give any Yankee fan nightmares), it should be easy. The Greatest of All Time has 559 regular season saves as is, and if he doesn’t string together 41 more (42 to beat Hoffman) between two more seasons, I’ll be more surprised than not. After all, ever since he became full-time closer in 1997, he’s never picked up less than 37 saves. The more interesting question: Can he do it in 2011? I’m not so sure.

Here’s where the going gets a little rocky. In the past five years, Rivera has logged only one 40+ save season (2009, with 44 in 55 appearances). He picked up 33 in 2010 in the same amount of appearances, logging a couple more blown saves as well. His numbers in 2010 were, as always, jaw-droppingly good: 1.80 ERA, 0.833 WHIP, 2.81 FIP. Despite this, both his bb/9 and his k/9 trended the wrong way, and even if the increase in walks was insignificant (a mere tenth of a point), his drop in strikeouts was huge (almost 3/9IP) despite being granted one of the widest strike zones in baseball. Now, we know Mo’s not really a strikeout pitcher, so it might not be as much of a problem as, say, Tim Lincecum, but it’s not what you want to see. The other problem is that Rivera was assisted by a .230 BABIP against  – his second-lowest ever. The lowest was .223, in 1999, if you were wondering. The problem with all of these numbers is that there are no giant, definitive changes. His FB/GB%, for example, remained almost exactly as 2009 (51%), for one, and Rivera’s reliance on broken-bat dribblers to second and short is a big part of how he does what he does.

So, to answer the question, I’m going to err on the side of caution and go with a most likely ‘no.’ That’s not because I think Rivera will get all those opportunities and blow them; I think that his age will have us see just a little less of the closer we know and love for everything he’s done. Injuries might factor in as well: in 2010, Rivera was day-to-day with oblique and knee pain and withdrew from the All Star Game. Although immortal, Rivera might be just a little creakier than he was last year, and Girardi may even be just a bit more hesitant to play him: he had only 3 2-inning appearances in ’10.

Like wins, saves don’t really tell you that much, but it’s nice to have a whole bunch of them topped off in a nice round number, and it’s certainly even nicer to have more of them than anyone else. If Hoffman does manage to pick up a closing job (Rays?), the race might get more interesting, but until then, Rivera is racing against himself and not much else. All I have the say is that the Yankees organization will hopefully give him more than a painting for his accomplishment, because man, a painting? I guess it is the Brewers…

Edited to Add: I have absolutely no idea how I messed this up, but Rivera has six seasons with less than 37 saves since 1997, actually. Just bear with me while I acclimate myself to this position and things will get smoother. I am unclutch. Apologies. Thanks Ross for pointing this out to me.

Food For Thought: Bernie Williams

Murphy received 73 votes for the Hall of Fame this year, just 12.6% of the total, so he was well short of induction. Bernie will jump on the ballot for the first time next year, and as you can see, his overall career path was very similar to Murphy’s. Both fell off considerably at age 32-33, and both had absurd peaks: Murphy hit .290/.383/.536 from ’83-’87, Bernie hit .324/.410/.551 from ’96-’00. The former can’t match the latter’s postseason exploits and World Series rings, but the latter can’t match the former’s two MVP awards. How do you think Bernie will fare in the voting ext year?

(related graphs) (h/t Jonathan Mitchell)

Yankees have “started talks” with Andruw Jones

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have “started talks” with Andruw Jones, but nothing is close right now. The standard Heyman-Boras client warning applies. We first heard of the team’s interest in Jones a few days ago, and he makes sense for the Marcus Thames role of a righty hitting outfielder/designated hitter. He’s also some halfway decent insurance in case Brett Gardner‘s wrist injury persists into the new season, since he can, you know, actually play the field on an everyday basis.