When Derek and Alex became BFFs again

To promote his upcoming book on Derek Jeter, Ian O’Connor has slowly been releasing the jucier excerpts for a public that enjoys baseball gossip. Over the weekend, we read about how Derek Jeter’s relationship with A-Rod went sour, and then we heard about Jeter’s contentious negotiations with the Yankees over his contract this past winter. It almost seemed as though O’Connor’s book was designed to knock down some myths about Jeter.

Worry not though for the latest installments do anything but that. ESPN New York today ran an extensive excerpt on the great thaw between Jeter and A-Rod and how the two became friends, thanks to Jeter’s magnanimity, as the Yankees were facing down the Twins, Angels and Phillies in October 2009. The not-so-subtle lesson O’Connor seems to imply is that Jeter’s decision to make nice with A-Rod contributed to the chemistry that led to the Yanks’ World Series win. And I always thought it was great pitching and an oppressive offense.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten my hands on the four-page introduction to the book, and it’s, well, saccharine. O’Connor opens up with an anecdote from 2009 when John Hirschbeck, an umpire, defended Jeter after the Yankee captain blew up after a bad call at third base. It goes on to cite Jeter’s “common acts of decency” and how he is a “patron saint of clean players in an era defined by performance-enhancing drugs.” With an introduction like that, the rest of the book could just write itself.

Soriano turns to an old friend for help

It’s no secret that Rafael Soriano‘s first month in pinstripes has been … um … underwhelming, but the right-hander is trying to get himself back on track. As Dan Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal writes, Soriano recently sought out the help of his best friend, his former co-closer in Atlanta Mike Gonzalez. After skipping out on reporters a few weeks ago, the first person Rafi called was Gonzalez, who basically told him if acts like Mariano Rivera, and he’ll be fine. The two had the dinner over the weekend in Baltimore to further talk about Soriano’s struggles.

“I feel fine, I feel comfortable with the team and everything,” said The Eighth Inning Guy™. “I just had a bad day…a bad month.” As frustrating as it’s been, Joe explained yesterday why we shouldn’t rush to call Soriano a failure just yet. His talent is obvious, as is the impact he could have on team’s chances of winning.

New design added to the RAB Shop

Yesterday we unveiled our new online shop, and we’ll be rolling out some new designs in the coming weeks. I added the Evolution design you see above this afternoon, which was designed by Tyler Wilkinson. Remember, you can customize the color and style of the shirt, or hell, you don’t need to buy a shirt at all. The logo is available on hoodies, clocks, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, tons of stuff. Click through and check it out.

Thanks in advance.

Looking Way Ahead: The 2013 Free Agent Class

Could Hamels be a target ... in two years? (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Yankees have been, and pretty much always will be a team that relies on high-end free agents to remain king of the MLB jungle. Sometimes those players work out, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they’re in between. MLB Trade Rumors posted a list of players currently scheduled to become a free agent after the 2012 season yesterday, and there are plenty of attractive names in there, especially when it comes to starting pitchers. Just a sampling…

Matt Cain (28)
John Danks (28)
Zack Greinke (28)
Cole Hamels (29)
Francisco Liriano (29)
Shaun Marcum (31)
Jonathan Sanchez (30)
Jered Weaver (30)

The ages listed are their 2013 season age, so Cain, Greinke, and Danks will all still be two years away from the big three-oh when the hit the market. That’s great because the Yankees, like just about every team, is always in need of starting pitching, especially of the young and high-end variety. In a perfect world, New York would sign two of these guys and have them join forced with CC Sabathia to form a powerful 1-2-3 combination. That would make breaking in a young pitcher (Manny Banuelos? Dellin Betances? Brett Marshall? who knows) slightly easier, at least in theory.

Here’s the question though: what is the Yankees payroll situation going to look like in two years? As of right now, the team has $128.2M tied up in just six players in 2013, and that assumes club options for Robinson Cano ($15M) and Curtis Granderson ($13M) are bought out for $2M apiece. That also doesn’t account for the extremely likely scenario in which Sabathia opts out of his contract after this season and re-signs to a much more lucrative one. It also assumes that Rafael Soriano won’t be using either of his opt outs. So despite that near $130M commitment, the Yankees would still be lacking three starting outfielders, a second baseman, a catcher, a designated hitter, three starting pitchers, plus an entire bullpen and bench.

If you figure it takes $50M to fill all those holes except the rotation, we’re still looking at $180M committed with three starting pitchers still needed. Figure one is a kid making the minimum or close to it, Ivan Nova in his final pre-arbitration season or something like that. Each of those eight pitchers above will command at least $10M a year on the open market, a few of them $20M or so. The Yankees would have to support a $210-220M payroll in 2013 to bring two of those guys aboard using my rough estimation of the cost to fill the rest of the roster.

Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s worth noting that after the 2013 season, the Yankees will be waving goodbye to A.J. Burnett ($16.5M) and Soriano ($14M), and maybe even Derek Jeter ($17M). I highly doubt that last one though. Could the team take the hit of a huge payroll that one year knowing some money will come off the books after the season? I dunno, possibly. Possibly not.

Now that we’ve wasted a sufficient amount of time looking at a free agent market that is still two years away, I have to remind you that not everyone listed there will actually become a free agent. Teams are locking up young players (not just pitchers) to long-term contract extensions more than ever before, and all of those guys seem like prime candidates for such deals. Realistically, maybe two or three of those guys will be available in two years, in which case the Yankees would probably pursue one. Then again, it could be the 2008-2009 offseason all over again.

Looking at two defensive plays on opposite ends of the spectrum

You might remember that a few weeks ago the Yankees blew a 4-0 lead against the Twins thanks in part to a bloop three-run double that eluded a sliding Nick Swisher, and you surely remember that Brent Lillibridge robbed the Yankees of two game winning hits just two nights ago. Mark Simon at ESPN took a look at those two balls in play using hang time, and found that within the last year, hits like the bloop double have fallen in for a hit approximately 56% of the time. The ball hung up in the air for 4.4 seconds, but it was just perfectly located. Swish wasn’t the only one unable to get there.

The ball Robinson Cano hit for the final out on Tuesday? That sucker had a hang time of just 2.5 seconds, and there have been 61 balls hit to that spot with that little hang time in the last year. Lillibridge was only the third outfielder to turn that ball into the out. That’s a .951 BABIP, but somehow the Yankees unlucked into small piece of the pie. Go figure.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Nick Swisher

The other day I stated the obvious and showed that no fewer than four of the nine Yankees’ regulars were slumping, though for the most part those slumps aren’t completely shocking. Derek Jeter‘s performing poorly? Well there haven’t been many shortstops that were productive in their age-37 season throughout baseball history. Jorge Posada has all those years of catching taking a toll on his body, plus he’s 39 years old. Brett Gardner doesn’t exactly scare pitchers with his skill set either. But the fourth guy, now that one doesn’t really make sense.

We need Happy Swish back. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Through the first 21 games of the season, Nick Swisher his hitting just .208/.326/.236 (.272 wOBA) with just two measly extra base hits, neither of which are homers. His .028 ISO ranks 181st out of 189 qualified players, putting him in the company of noted slap hitters like Juan Pierre (.029), Alcides Escobar (.032), and sadly, Jeter (.024). “The past week I have been caught up in the home run a bit,” said Swisher on Wednesday, essentially admitting that the zero in the HR column is weighing on him. “Once I start gearing up and I try to do too much, that’s when I [suck]. I need to try to do less, and really slow down the game.”

Like the rest of the team, Swisher has been fed a healthy diet of offspeed and breaking pitches this month. Just 51.1% of the pitches he’s seen this year have been some variant of fastball (two- or four-seam), down from 53.6% last year, 56.3% the year before, and 56.0% for his career. Pitchers have thrown Swisher a slider or curveball 29% of the time this year, up from 22.5% last year and 20.7% for his career. Like many players, the Yankees’ right-fielder does most of his damage against the old number one, checking in at 1.04 runs above average against the pitch for every 100 seen in his career. That number is -0.74 for sliders and -0.67 for curves.

The interesting thing is that Swisher’s batted ball profile has barely changed, certainly nothing that raises a red flag. We’re talking 19.7% line drives (19.6% in 2010, 18.7% career), 36.1% ground balls (35.5%, 36.0%), and 44.3% fly balls (44.9%, 45.2%), so nothing is out of whack there. What is out of whack is that almost one out of every five fly balls (18.5%, to be exact) has been an infield pop-up, compared to 7.8% last year and 10.6% for his career. Obviously you’re not going to hit the ball out of the park when you aren’t hitting it out of the infield as often. Most of Nick’s struggles have come against right-handed pitchers (.196 wOBA vs. RHP, .428 vs. LHP), but again his batted ball profile from the left side of the plate is pretty normal (12.8% LD, 35.9% GB, 51.3% FB, 10.0% IFFB) compared to the rest of his career (17.5%, 35.9%, 46.6%, 8.8% respectively).

If Swish was all of a sudden beating the ball into the ground or hitting a negligible amount of line drives, I’d be more concerned. A 0.0% HR/FB rate is pretty unsustainable for a guy like Nick, so that first homerun will come at some point, it’s inevitable. The hard part, as he admitted, is staying within himself and not pressing, which will only lead to more struggles. The good news is that his strikeout rate (19.4%) is down from the rest of his career (25.2%, 24.6% in 2010), and his walk rate (14.6%) has returned to pre-2010 levels (9.1% last year, 13.3% career), so everything on the surface looks pretty good. As we (well, White Sox fans anyway) learned in 2008 however, there’s no guarantee his .246 BABIP will regress back to his career norm (.285) this season. Perhaps a day off is in order as he comes to the end of an ugly month, but at 30 years old and in the prime of his career, there’s every reason to expect Swish to snap out of his horrid 0-for-18 skid and be a very productive player this season.

Are the Yankees susceptible to offspeed pitches?

Have a heart, throw Jorge a fastball. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Prior to last night’s game against the White Sox, hitting coach Kevin Long told Marc Carig that pitchers have been throwing the Yankees a ton of offspeed pitches lately, and in fact just one of Gavin Floyd’s final 32 pitches on Tuesday was a fastball. As Long said, pitchers are going to keep throwing the Yankees soft stuff until they prove they can hit it. We know from watching the games that Jorge Posada is helpless against anything that breaks and that Mark Teixeira is the king of swinging over top of changeups, but what about the team as a whole?

Thankfully we can look at this using something more than our eyes. That’s not to say observation is meaningless, it obviously isn’t, but getting some cold hard facts about how players have performed against certain pitches is the way to go. I’m going to use the pitch type run values at FanGraphs, which essentially tells you how much offense a player created on a given pitch. Here’s a list of run values for each event, though that might be a little out-dated by now. Tex hits a fastball for a single? That 0.47 runs. Flies out a curveball next time up? That’s -0.28 runs, he just hurt the team. Simple enough.

The table on the right shows the Yankees’ run values per 100 pitches (as a team) against certain pitches this season. Zero is league average. I also listed their rank against the other American League teams (the NL is different because of pitchers batting and stuff, so let’s leave those teams out). So far this year the Yankees are either the best or second best team in baseball against fastballs, cutters, sliders, and changeups, but they’re dead last against curveballs. It’s not really close either, the Twins are the next worst at -1.51 runs per 100 pitches against the yakker. It’s obvious the Yankees are susceptible against the curve, at least they have been during the first 20 games of the season. That’s just one kind of offspeed pitch though, there’s also sliders and changeups, and the Yanks have been very good against those offerings.

What about an individual level? Let’s look at how the eight regulars (sorry Brett Gardner, but platooning with Andruw Jones leaves you on the outside looking in) have performed against fastballs and offspeed pitches both this year and over the three previous years.

“Fastballs” is a combination of regular old fastballs and cutters. “Offspeed” is basically everything else, curves, sliders, and changeups. I left splitters and knuckle balls out because those pitches are thrown less than three percent of the time around the league.

A few players (Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Russell Martin) have been positive performers against both the heat and offspeed while Derek Jeter is the only guy negative against both. Everyone else has been good against one but not the either. “FB-OFF” is the fastball run value minus the offspeed run value, and that essentially tells us how “balanced” a player is. Zero is ideal, that means they perform just as well against slow stuff as they do hard stuff. A positive number means they feast on fastballs, negative means they’ve done better against offspeed. The further from zero, the more extreme it is.

Posada, holy schnikees, he’s all about the fastball, but you knew that already. Same with A-Rod, Cano, and Martin, just to a lesser extent. Only three of the eight have performed better against offspeed than fastballs (Jeter, Tex, Nick Swisher) so far this season, and that supports the claim that the team as a whole is at a disadvantage against pitches that break. Look at the data for 2008-2010 though, it’s much more balanced. A-Rod, Cano, Posada, and Martin all performed better against offspeed pitches in that time, and both Curtis Granderson and Tex had FB-OFF dangerously close to zero, so it’s not a huge split for them. Based on recent history, the Yankees have an offense that does well against both fastballs and offspeed, but for whatever reason that has no held true in 2011.

So now the question becomes this: are other teams exploiting this weakness against offspeed pitches? The table on the right shows the rate at which the Yankees have seen each pitch this year, as well as the league average and their AL rank. So far this year the Yankees have seen basically an average amount of fastballs and sliders and a slightly below average amount of changeups and cutters, but look at those curveballs. Only the Blue Jays at 13.0% have seen more curves than New York, so yeah, the other clubs are trying to exploit that weakness against the hook when they take on the Yankees.

Why are the Yankees having this trouble against curveballs and offspeed pitches in general? Damned if it know, that’s for K-Long to figure out. Could be a small sample size, could be that some players have seen their skills decline, could be something else entirely. When you’re talking about a team doing something as a whole, there’s bound to be more than one factor in play. Given the disparities between the 2011 and 2008-2010 data for the individual players, I suspect this is something that will start to even out as the season progresses and we’ll see the team perform more in line with their norms. Even with the deficiencies against the curveball, the Yankees still have a great offense. There’s just a little weakness at the moment.