Open Thread: 3/6 Camp Notes

The Yankees lost to the Pirates today. Season over. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Spring Training losing streak has been extended to a daunting two games. The Yankees lost to the Pirates 7-4 in Bradenton today. CC Sabathia started and allowed three straight singles to open the game, then retired the next five men he faced (including one double play). Phil Hughes replaced him and only recorded four outs before reaching his pitch limit. Joe had more on his outing earlier this afternoon.

Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira all picked up one hit. Jeter also took an errant pick-off throw to the ribs but remained in the game. A-Rod and Tex also walked. David Adams and Justin Maxwell both doubled, the only extra-base hits. Brett Marshall replaced Hughes and recorded five outs, then Graham Stoneburner took over with two innings of one-run ball. Chase Whitley let things get out of hand with a three-run eighth inning. Oh, and Zoilo Almonte finally made an out. For shame. Here’s the box score, and here’s the rest from Tampa…

  • Frankie Cervelli got hit in the head by a back-swing today while behind the plate, but thankfully it was nothing serious. He has a history of concussion problems, as you know. Mark Teixeira also jammed his thumb, but it ain’t no thang. [Chad Jennings]
  • Joba Chamberlain highlighted today’s bullpen sessions, his second time working off a full mound as part of his rehab from Tommy John surgery. D.J. Mitchell, Matt Daley, and Freddy Garcia all threw sides today while Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos, Rafael Soriano, and Brad Meyers are scheduled to do so tomorrow. [Jennings]

Here is your open thread for the night. Every local hockey and basketball team is playing except for the Islanders, plus MLB Network will be broadcasting games pretty much all evening. Talk about whatever your heart desires, enjoy.

Yankees sign Alex Smith out of indy league

Via Josh Norris, the Yankees have signed right-hander left-hander Alex Smith out of the independent Northern League. The 27-year-old spent last season with the independent Newark Bears, pitching to a 3.39 ERA in 111.2 IP spread across 19 starts. He only struck out 56 and walked 52, however. Baseball America says Smith “has arm strength but not a lot of polish or secondary stuff at this stage.” More than likely he’s just minor league filler.

Sorry, folks, but you’re here a little early

We all miss baseball. Deeply. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be reading and writing about it. It has been more than four months since we last saw baseball that counts. As such, we can take comfort in early spring training games. It’s easier than ever, too. The Yankees have played live on television three times already, and will continue to do so frequently throughout the spring. In addition, beat writers flood twitter with a bevy of updates letting us know the latest happenings in camp.

We can, in other words, cling to baseball to a greater degree than ever before. That’s wonderful from an emotional standpoint. But from an analysis standpoint, let’s agree to leave things alone until the players are further along in the process.

There’s a lot at stake in Yankees’ camp. There’s the future of the pitching rotation. Michael Pineda has already come under the microscope. Phil Hughes, too, will face intense scrutiny as he competes for a rotation spot. Every time they take the mound they’ll be the centers of attention. Afterwards, the media will pick apart every little detail, as though it were a regular season, or even postseason, performance. It’s not that we should ignore any of this information. Instead, it’s that we should approach it knowing that these players aren’t even close to full speed.

Look at Pineda, for example. Before his start yesterday he came under fire for issues that we’d known about for weeks, if not months. Yet his performance looked just fine, as he retired six in a row after allowing a leadoff hit. The media in general praised him. But then reports surfaced of his relatively low velocity, and the conversation turned on a button.

Today’s focus was Hughes, who needs a big year to regain some of the luster that wore off last season. The good news? He hit 93 todaymultiple times. The bad? He allowed four hits while recording just four outs, reaching his pitch count before his two innings were up. You can take that information any way you’d like, but I hope it’s any way but seriously. There’s too much time left before the season starts to make too much of anything right now.

The information we’re learning now might come in handy in the future. If Pineda’s velocity remains low, it will absolutely become a concern. If Hughes continues to throw well, but remains hittable, it will become a hindrance to his cracking the rotation. But right now, at this very moment, there’s not much we can do with this information. After all, they’re playing games that don’t count for a reason. At least for now, let’s continue to remember that they don’t count. There will come a time when judgements and analysis will become necessary. But in early March, when the Yankees haven’t even completed one turn through the rotation? That’s not the time.

Opening Day rotation order taking shape

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

There are few things in baseball more talked about and less important than the order of the Opening Day rotation. Everyone wants to know who the number two starter behind CC Sabathia will be, but ultimately it doesn’t matter in April. It matters in October. Seniority and salaries and stuff like that has more to do with determining the Opening Day rotation order than expected production, which is why A.J. Burnett got the ball in the second game of 2011.

We all know Sabathia is going to start Opening Day for the fourth time as a Yankee and the ninth time overall in 2012, but that all-important number two starter spot is still a mystery. It could be Ivan Nova, who was the number two come playoff time last season. It could also be new import Michael Pineda, who the Yankees have touted as a future ace assuming he figures out a usable changeup. Hiroki Kuroda has a strong case as well as a veteran arm coming off four very good seasons with the Dodgers. He was their Opening Day starter in 2009, and his $10M price tag doesn’t hurt his chances. Heck, you can even make an argument for Freddy Garcia. He pitched well last year, gives some Grade-A veteran presents, and has a trio of Opening Day starts to his credit (Mariners, 2001-2003).

Based on the current Spring Training rotation order, it looks as though Kuroda will get the ball after Sabathia to open the season while Nova following as the number three. CC pitches today against the Pirates, Kuroda tomorrow against the Rays, and then Nova on Thursday against the Blue Jays. According to Chad Jennings, Joe Girardi said the order will remain the same the next time through the rotation as well, taking us into mid-March. At that point the starters will have increased their workload to four innings or so, making it a bit more difficult to rearrange things just for the heck of it. Pineda and either Garcia or Phil Hughes will follow as the four and five in some order.

The Yankees start the season with three games in Tampa and three games in Baltimore before their first scheduled day off, so they will need all five starters right out of the chute. If they really want to get cute, they can use a six-man rotation the first time through the rotation, allowing Sabathia to start the home opener after that first off-day. I don’t like it and really hope they don’t do it, but the Yankees did employ a six-man rotation for way too long last season. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if they did it again. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

Anyway, it appears as though Kuroda and Nova will follow Sabathia in the rotation to open the season. I had a feeling things would line up this way after the Pineda and Kuroda pickups; the Yankees have talked about easing the former into things, and frankly I think the latter is going to be the club’s best pitcher not named Sabathia in 2012. Like I said though, the order of the rotation on Opening Day means very little. Weather and off days and injuries will change things drastically during the course of the 162-game schedule, but come late-September and early-October, that’s when this stuff will really start to matter.

2012 Season Preview: Regression Candidates

He smiled! (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Yesterday we took at look some Yankees who are candidates to see their performances take a step back in 2012, and now it’s time to flip the coin and look at some players with the potential to improve. That’s the neat thing about the term “regress,” it can work both ways even though it’s somehow developed this negative connotation. The Yankees had a few players under-perform last year, some with good reason and others just because.

Boone Logan
On the surface, Logan had some killer stats last season. He struck out 9.94 batters per nine (24.9 K%) while walking 2.81 per nine (7.0 BB%) with a decent 42.4 GB%. Of course lefty specialists usually aren’t judged by their overall numbers, they’re on the roster to get left-handed batters out. That was a problem for Logan last year, who allowed same-side hitters to tag him for a .260/.328/.462 batting line in 118 plate appearances. He gave up three times as many extra-base hits to lefties as David Robertson despite facing 24 fewer hitters.

Logan’s strikeout (11.20 K/9 and 28.8 K%) and walk (2.30 BB/9 and 5.9 BB%) rates against southpaws were insanely good, but his problem was the long ball. His 40.6 GB% resulted in a 13.3% HR/FB ratio, though Hit Tracker says that three of the four homers he surrendered to lefties were Just Enoughs. That means they cleared the fence by less than ten vertical feet or landed less than one fence height beyond the wall. Two of the four homers would have remained in play in the other 29 parks according to their data. Just Enoughs are the most volatile type of homer given their definition, as they’re very prone to the weather and wind and ballpark. The homer issue may not be much of one, so if Boone can maintain those strikeout and walk rates, he should do just fine against left-handed batters going forward.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
We all know the story by now. Martin started last season ridiculously hot — .270/.367/.511 in his first 158 PA — before dragging himself across the finish line — .221/.303/.357 in his final 318 PA. The end result was a .237/.324/.408 batting line in 476 PA, or a .325 wOBA and a perfectly league average 100 wRC+. The average catcher produced a .309 wOBA and a 91 wRC+ last season, so Martin was an above average hitter relative to his position.

Like most players, Russ was a more productive hitter at Yankee Stadium (.345 wOBA and 114 wRC+) than on the road (.307 and 88). The easy answer is the short porch and more homers, but that’s not the case. Martin went deep eight times with a .175 ISO and a 15.4% HR/FB ratio at home last year, but clubbed ten homers with a .166 ISO and a 16.4% HR/FB ratio away from the Bronx. His walk and strikeout rates were essentially identical both home and away as was his batted ball profile, but his road batting average (.217 with a .220 BABIP) paled in comparison to his home rate (.260 and .288).

Martin is likely to see his home performance suffer a bit next year and his road performance improve a bit. In terms of process stats — the strikeouts, walks, batted ball types — he was the same hitter regardless of venue in 2011, he just got different results. Given the advantages of Yankee Stadium, the short porch and the fact that pretty much every hitter performs better at home, his home performance may not decline as much as his road performance improves. Martin will never be the guy he was in 2007 again, but a little more love on the road will boost his overall numbers and value to the team. Some more rest will only help further.

Nick Swisher
Swisher was basically the anti-Martin last year. He was dreadful to start the season — .206/.321/.288 in his first 193 PA — but a monster thereafter — .284/.397/.519 in his final 442 PA. Overall, Swisher finished with a .260/.374/.449 batting line (.358 wOBA and 122 wRC+), his worst performance as a Yankee and the second worst season full season of his career. His 23 homers were his fewest in five years thanks to the early-season slump.

Although he’ll never be a high-contact guy, Swisher has slightly improved his strikeout rate as his career has progressed while maintaining his high walk rate. He’ll never hit for a high average but that’s fine, he’s asked to provide power and patience. That power was missing early in the season, though his 14.3% HR/FB ratio in 2011 was right in line with his career average (14.9%). He just didn’t hit as many fly balls has he had in the past…

Green is GB, blue is FB, red is LD. (via FanGraphs)

Swisher’s performance against right-handed pitchers last year was by far his worst as a Yankee, going from .375+ wOBAs to just .335. Again, it had to do with the lack of fly balls, a 41.4 GB% compared to 35.9% from 2004-2010. He’s still relatively young (turned 31 in November) and healthy, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect the fly balls to return in 2012. It’s not like we’re asking an injury-prone guy in his late-30’s to perform miracles here. More fly balls will lead to more homers, hopefully getting Swish back around 28-30 and making him more dangerous against northpaws.

Alex Rodriguez
It’s easy to forget just how stellar A-Rod was before his knee started giving him problems. He carried a .301/.377/.509 batting line (in 318 PA) into July before getting hurt, which is still excellent even if it’s not on par with his lofty standards. Alex was never the same after that (.191/.345/.353 in his final 84 PA), and the story is the same heading into 2012. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I think everyone knows the deal. If healthy, A-Rod will produce big numbers even if they aren’t quite as big as they used to be. Whether or not he can actually stay on the field for 140 games or so is a total mystery, experimental knee procedures and new training methods be damned.

Rafael Soriano
Baseball’s highest paid setup man didn’t have a great first year in pinstripes, particularly early on. Most realized that his fly ball ways (just 35.2 GB% in 2011 and 31.4% career) were a bad fit for Yankee Stadium, so the big jump in homer rate (0.92 HR/9 and 8.3% HR/FB were nearly double his 2010 totals) wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was his walk rate, which jumped from 2.69 BB/9 and 7.5 BB% coming into the season to 4.12 and 10.0 in 2011, respectively.

Most of the walk damage came before Soriano hit the DL with an elbow problem. That makes sense, since elbow injuries have historically resulted in a loss of control while shoulder injuries have resulted in loss of velocity. Soriano walked 11 of 69 batters (15.9%) before hitting the DL but only seven of 95 batters (7.4%) after getting healthy. His strikeout (14.5 K% per-injury but 27.4 K% after) rate improved as well. Unfortunately, health is a going to remain a question going forward given his career-long battle with his elbow, but a healthy Soriano should be a very good reliever for the Yankees.

Nothing to complain about from the right side. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira’s performance problems are all self-inflicted. He readily admits that he’s changed his left-handed swing over the last three years in an effort to take advantage of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium, and says he’s working hard to correct the problem. He’s even talked about laying down bunts to beat the shift, which might be going a little too far. That’s another argument for another time.

With his massive power (.246 ISO and 17.1% HR/FB in 2011 vs. .250 ISO and 18.2% career), strong walk rate (11.1 BB% in 2011 vs. 11.5% career), relatively low strikeout rate (16.1 K% in 2011 vs. 17.2% career), and right-handed production (.410 wOBA vs. LHP in 2011 vs. .400 career) still intact, it’s all about Teixeira getting that batting average as a left-handed hitter (.224 in 2011) back up to his career norm (.277 coming into 2011). If he does that, his overall batting average (.248 in 2011) and OBP (.341) will also return to their previous levels (.286 and .377 coming into 2011, respectively).

Fixing the problem is much easier said than done. The uppercut Teixeira has added to his swing has resulted in a ton of fly balls (48.3% in each of the last two years) against righties, and fly balls will do a number on the ol’ BABIP (just .222 last year) since they’re generally easy to field. Eliminating the uppercut and returning to the level, all-fields approach that made him one of the game’s very best hitters will be tough because that’s a lot of muscle memory to undo. It won’t happen overnight, but it can be done. It will cost Teixeira some homers, but he’s a good enough hitter that he’ll be able to provide average, on-base skills, and 30+ homers at the same time. It doesn’t have to be one of the other.

Yankee designated hitter production of recent vintage, and a look at 2012

One of the bitterest pills to swallow in the aftermath of the Michael PinedaJesus Montero trade was the fact that the Yankees were removing what many expected to be a substantial cog in the offensive machine, not only in 2012 but for years to come. Prior to being traded, Montero’s average projected wOBA for 2012 was .360 (his revised projections as a Mariner average out to a .347 wOBA, or .272/.334/.461), which was the fifth-best projected wOBA of the projected starting Yankee nine.

Interestingly, for all of Brian Cashman‘s skill at building an incredibly talented roster on the offensive side of the equation, getting robust production out of the DH slot in the lineup has never really seemed to be a primary interest. To wit (as always, click to embiggen):

Of the 14 Yankee teams Cash has presided over, they have received below-league average production (sOPS+) out of the DH slot five times. That may not seem like a lot, but it is a tad eyebrow-raising given how robust the Yankee offense has been with Cash at the helm. Only four times has the team received DH production 10% better than league average in the last 14 seasons, which seems like a fairly large waste of resources when considering we’re talking about a lineup slot solely extant to produce offense.

Cashman’s high-water mark DH season was 2009, the year in which Hideki Matsui had primary designated hitter duties and responded with a DH campaign 19% better than the league. The Yankees also got a surprising amount of production out of the 2008 DH, which was mostly filled by Jason Giambi, along with Matsui and Johnny Damon. The only other really standout year for DH production above was 1998, which saw Darryl Strawberry, Rock Raines and Chili Davis collaborate on a .276/.378/.493 line.

That .360 projected wOBA for a Montero as a Yankee worked out to roughly a .270/.360/.470 triple slash, mighty fine production out of a 21-year-old, not to mention a line that would’ve been among the better performances the Yankees received from the DH during the last 14 seasons. However, for all the hullabaloo about the Yankees wanting to fill Montero’s vacated production, it appears they’ll have a pretty good shot at doing just that with the platoon of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez.

In 2011, Andruw Jones put up the following slash against LHP  in 146 PAs: .286/.384/.540, .400 wOBA.
In 2011, Raul Ibanez put up the following slash against RHP in 437 PAs: .256/.307/.440, .322 wOBA.

If you average those lines (and obviously this is exceptionally rough math, as the PAs are not even close to comparable), you get a .271/.346/.490, .361 wOBA hitter. Docking for the fact that PAs against RHP are roughly double those against LHP and you’re probably close to a .340 wOBA hitter, which is right around the average of SG’s 2012 CAIRO-projected platoon splits for Jones (.337 vs. LHP) and Ibanez (.349 vs. RHP).

While Jones probably won’t produce a .400 wOBA against LHP again, on the flip side Ibanez seems like a fairly reasonable bet to outdo a .322 wOBA against RHP with 81 games at Yankee Stadium, and taken together I don’t think it’s terribly unrealistic to expect the duo to combine for somewhere in the neighborhood of a .350 wOBA. While that may not quite be Jesus Montero territory, it should be enough for the Yankee offense to not miss much of a beat, especially when considering the ~.309 wOBA received from Jorge Posada in the majority of DH plate appearances in 2011.

Open Thread: 3/5 Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The dream of an undefeated season is over. The Yankees lost their first game of the spring today, falling to the Phillies 9-3. Michael Pineda started and threw two scoreless innings (video), allowing a ten-hop single back up the middle to the first batter before retiring the next six. He struck out two: Shane Victorino on a changeup in the dirt and Jim Thome on a fastball up high. Afterwards, Pineda told Jack Curry that he threw about five changeups, including the one whiff from Victorino. Marc Carig spoke to a scout who said he was 89-92 with a flat slider. Typical first outing of camp.

David Robertson allowed a run in his inning, but things really got out of hand in the sixth. Adam Miller allowed five runs on six baserunners with his only out coming on a caught stealing. Juan Cedeno (three runs in one inning) did him no favors by allowing all three inherited runs to score. Gus Molina was the offensive star by going 2-for-2 and Zoilo Almonte continued his perfect spring by going 1-for-1. He’s now 5-for-5 across three games. Brett Gardner hit an inside-the-park homer that was really a fly ball followed by a comedy of errors. Here’s the box score, and here’s the rest from Tampa…

Here is your open thread for the night. None of the basketball or hockey locals are in action, but the Mets are playing (on SNY) and MLB Network will be carrying various games all night. Talk about whatever you like here, enjoy.