What Went Right: Russell Martin

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

For a short time last winter it appeared that Jesus Montero would start the season behind the plate for the Yankees. Brian Cashman had announced the end of Jorge Posada‘s days behind the plate, and the only catcher who appeared ready was Montero. But it didn’t take long for the Yankees to get involved on a free agent catcher.

A few years ago it appeared that Russell Martin would be the Dodgers’ catcher of the future. After a solid 2006 season he broke out with a .368 wOBA in 2007, and followed that up with a .351 wOBA in 2008. He knew how to take a walk, hit for a solid average, and played excellent defense. But in 2009 things started to fall apart. He lost power and saw his batting average drop significantly. In 2010 things got even worse. Not only did he produce similar numbers, but he suffered a hip injury that limited him to just 476 PA. Rather than give him a raise over his $5.05 million 2010 salary, the Dodgers non-tendered him.

It came as little surprise that the Yankees showed immediate interest in Martin. While Montero generated plenty of buzz, there were still concerns about his ability to handle the catcher position in the big leagues. The safe bet, then, was to pursue a veteran catcher and try to ease Montero into the the role. They did just that in signing Martin. Amid some competition from AL East rivals they came in with the winning bid, a $4 million contract that included plenty of playing time bonuses. He earned every one of those incentives in 2011, bringing his total 2011 salary to $5.375 million.

To be sure, Martin was worth every penny of his incentivized salary. In April it looked as though he’d be an absolute steal, as he hit .293/.376/.587, including six homers. But once the calendar flipped to May his offensive production dropped off considerably. In his 391 post-April PA he hit .225/.313/.368 with 12 home runs. That did amount to 3.6 runs above average, though, which ranked 11th in the majors among catchers with at least 400 PA. That looks even better when considering Martin’s total value, the bulk of which comes from his defense.

Catcher defense has long been an elusive element of analysis. A catcher is responsible for so many aspects of the game, and it’s difficult to quantify many of them. But with so many sharp minds and increasingly accurate data, it was only a matter of time before someone, or someones, figured out a way. At this year’s Pitch f/x Summit Max Marchi presented his findings, in which he stated that catcher framing can mean a swing of 40 runs at the extremes (i.e., the best catcher can add 20 runs while the worst can cost 20 runs). Baseball Prospectus’s Mike Fast put together his own study of catcher framing, while The Hardball Times’s Bojan Koprivica studied catcher blocking. These elements both favor Martin greatly.

According to Fast’s study, Martin has been one of the best framers in the league over the last four years. He ranked second in the majors in total runs saved during that four-year period — to Jose Molina, of all people. Martin is also near the top of the league in runs saved per 120 games caught, but he also has far more playing time than those close to him. In the blocking study Martin came out even. Koprivica did provide us a great service, though, by combining Fast’s study with his own, and further with the FanGraphs data on catcher arms, to create an adjusted WAR leaderboard for 2011. Martin gains a win and a half when considering these factors, and ranks sixth among all catchers in baseball. All for that cool $5.3 million.

While we can’t attribute an improved Yankees pitching staff to Martin solely, he’s tough to ignore in that regard. This year the Yankees staff produced a 3.73 ERA, which ranked 11th in baseball, and a 3.87 FIP, which ranked 13th. Last year they had a 4.06 ERA (15th) and 4.34 FIP (25th). Considering how well Martin graded out in the catcher defense studies, it stands to reason that he played a significant role in that improvement.

There are two things a team can do to win ballgames: score runs and prevent them. Martin didn’t do much in the way of scoring runs, though he did produce above-average numbers, which is no small accomplishment from the catcher position. His greatest contribution, however, came on defense. He’s one of the best in the game, and that benefits the Yankees in many ways. It’s also a joyful sight to see, after watching Jorge Posada, one of the game’s worst defensive catchers, for the past decade-plus. That’s no slight on Jorge, given his offensive contributions. It’s just that Martin was just as valuable, but in a different way.

What Went Right: Ivan Nova

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

It’s hard to believe that given all the uncertainty surrounding the Yankees rotation coming into the season, things were actually worse down the stretch in 2010. Andy Pettitte was on the shelf, Phil Hughes was fading, and both Javy Vazquez and A.J. Burnett were disasters. Dustin Moseley drew some spot starts, as did the young Ivan Nova, a kid the Yankees left exposed in the Rule 5 Draft just one year prior. He pitched well (but not great) last September, enough to earn him a long look in Spring Training this season.

It was going to take a lot for Nova to pitch his way out of the rotation in camp, and he did no such thing by allowing just eleven hits and four runs in 20 IP across four starts and one relief appearance. Much like the end of 2010, Nova struggled to get through a lineup multiple times in April, completing five innings just once in his first three starts of 2011. A rather pointless extra innings relief appearance against the Blue Jays on April 19th seems to mark the end of his problem with retiring matters the second and third times around.

Nova allowed a total of four runs (three earned) in his next three starts, keeping the White Sox, Jays, and Rangers in check for 20 IP. The Royals roughed him up for eight runs in three innings on May 12th, but he rebounded and allowed no more than three runs in four of his next five starts. His best start of the season came on June 20th in Cincinnati, when he held the Reds to one run on four hits and no walks in eight innings, striking out seven. Nova was sporting a 4.12 ERA with rather mediocre peripherals (5.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 with ~55% ground balls) on July 1st, a performance that earned him a trip to the minors when Phil Hughes was ready to come off the DL.

(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

The Yankees wanted Nova to focus on improving his slider in Triple-A, promising him a return trip to the bigs at some point. He made just three starts in the minors, allowing six runs in 16 IP, but the important thing is that he struck out 18 and walked just two. A line drive to the ankle put him on the shelf for about a week, but Nova returned to the Major League rotation at the end of July and looked like a change man. He dominated the Orioles and ChiSox in his first two starts back, allowing just three runs and one walk against 16 strikeouts in 14.2 IP. The Yankees planned to send him back to minors after the start against Chicago, but he pitched so well they just couldn’t do it. Nova allowed more than three runs just twice in eleven starts after coming back up, pitching to a 3.18 ERA with 5.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and ~52% grounders.

That post-demotion performance earned Nova the Game Two assignment in the ALDS, though some rain shenanigans meant he was technically coming out of the bullpen in relief of CC Sabathia in Game One. He held the Tigers to two runs in 6.1 IP in the win, and both runs were inherited runners that came around to score while he sat in the dugout. Nova’s season did end on a bit of a sour note, as he allowed two homers in two innings of work in the deciding Game Five, leaving the game with a tight forearm. An MRI revealed a Grade I flexor strain, an injury that is expected to heal during the offseason and have him ready in time for Spring Training.

Nova will get some serious consideration for Rookie of the Year after going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, the most wins by a Yankees rookie since Stan Bahnsen won 17 games in 1968. Only two rookies have won more games this century (CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander with 17 apiece), and his season-ending stretch of 16 straight starts without a loss was the longest by a rookie in at least 25 years. Nova was a touch better than league average with a 4.01 FIP thanks to his 0.71 HR/9, the 23rd lowest among the 94 starters that qualified for the ERA title. Thank his 52.7% ground ball rate for that. All 13 of the homers he allowed were solo shots, and only three came at homer-happy Yankee Stadium.

It goes without saying that Nova was one of biggest bright spots for the 2011 Yankees, and he will be counted on for much more going forward. His confidence was through the roof late in the season, and that slider the brain trust wanted him to work on improved to the point where it was his go-to pitch by the end of the season. The flexor strain is a bit of a concern, but it’s the first arm-related injury of his entire career and he’s got all winter to rest. The hard part comes now, and that’s doing it again for a second year in a row. I’m sure Nova knows this and is ready for the challenge.

Chavez would “deeply consider” a return to the Yankees in 2012

A few weeks ago we heard that Eric Chavez was “heavily leaning” towards retirement, but his agent Scott Leventhal told Jerry Crasnick today that no decision has been made yet, just that it will come “at some point” this winter. “He truly enjoyed playing for the Yankees,” said Leventhal. “If he decides to return next season, he would deeply consider a return to New York if there is a fit.”

Alex Rodriguez isn’t getting any younger, so the Yankees figure to add some kind of third base insurance this winter. Chavez did a fine job last season (when he wasn’t injured), and although I’m sure the Yankees would welcome him back, they can’t wait around forever for him to make up his mind. I’d like to see him back, but he’s not that important to the team’s success. Here’s the review of Chavez’s season I wrote just yesterday.

Phelps rights the ship in Arizona

Apparently Colin Curtis is going to play winter ball in Venezuela this year, or at least that’s what this tweet seems to imply. He’s not on any of the VWL rosters, but that doesn’t mean anything. We’ll just have to wait and see. Curtis missed the season after needing surgery for a severe shoulder injury he suffered in Spring Training.

AzFL Phoenix (4-3 loss to Salt River)
Corban Joseph, 2B: 0 for 4
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB – six walks and four strikeouts in his last eight games
David Phelps, RHP: 4 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1-4 GB/FB – 39 of 54 pitches were strikes (72.2%) … easily his best start out here
Dan Burawa, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 2-0 GB/FB – eight of 13 pitches were strikes (61.5%)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 3 K – nine of his 16 pitches were strikes (56.3%)

AzFL Phoenix (7-6 win over Peoria)
Ronnie Mustelier, DH: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 K – four straight two-hit games and five multi-hit games in his seven contests
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 5, 1 K
Chase Whitley, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB – eight of ten pitches were strikes

Open Thread: Rained Out

The Lohses. (Getty)

Game Six of the World Series has already been postponed due to some nasty weather in St. Louis, so the Cardinals will live to fight another day. The forecast is much better for Thursday and Friday, so that’s when they’ll play Game Six and Seven (if necessary). As much as I wanted to watch a game tonight, I’m glad MLB decided to call it. Remember Game Five of the 2008 World Series? That was a disaster no one wants to see again.

Here’s your open thread for the night, but there’s no local sports going on anywhere. If you’re looking for something to pass the time, I recommend Luke O’Brien’s piece on Howie Spira over at Deadspin. Spira’s the guy that George Steinbrenner used to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield back in the day, leading to The Boss’ ban from baseball in the early-90’s. It’s long, but amazing. Anyway, talk about whatever you want here.

Oppenheimer out of Angels GM mix; Eppler called for second interview

Via Jon Heyman and Mike DiGiovanna, Billy Eppler has been called by the Angels for a second interview about their GM job. Damon Oppenheimer was told that he is not longer being considered for the position, however. The Yankees gave the Halos permission to interview their two scouting directors, pro (Eppler) and amateur (Opp), earlier this month, and it seems like the Angels are starting to narrow the field down a bit. Dan Barbarisi wrote a great article about how Eppler and his department were able to unearth some hidden gems back in May.

What Went As Expected: Nick Swisher

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Yankees have had one of the league’s best offenses for many years running, but they came into the season with a surprising lack of sure things at the plate. How would Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez continue to decline? Would Curtis Granderson continue to rake after making adjustments with Kevin Long? Would Mark Teixeira‘s batting average bounce back? Can Brett Gardner do it again with the wrist injury in the rear-view mirror? How would Jorge Posada take to DHing? Is Russell Martin healthy? The only two players with any kind of certainty coming into 2011 were budding star Robinson Cano and the less hyped Nick Swisher.

Oddly enough, Swisher’s season started with a rather prolonged slump, particularly in the power department. He’d gotten off to hot starts in his previous two years as a Yankee, so this was quite the opposite. Swish didn’t hit his first homerun until the team’s 22nd game of the season, at which point he was hitting just .237/.351/.303 in 94 plate appearances. The slump continued into late-May, and the Yankees right fielder carried a weak .206/.321/.288 batting line into the May 29th game in Seattle, the Yankees’ 51st game of the season.

A second inning solo homer off Jason Vargas in that May 29th game set the stage for Swisher’s turn around. He put together a little six-game hitting streak and socked another homer three days later, then hit another one out three days after that. It’s not much, but he managed to raise his season batting line from .204/.321/.289 to .215/.342/.348 during the nine-game west coast trip, and he was the team’s best hitter during June: .326/.445/.651 with seven homers and more walks (20) than strikeouts (16). From that May 29th game through the end of the season, he hit .284/.397/.519 with 23 doubles and 21 homers in 442 plate appearances.

Swisher managed to raise his overall season line from that sub-replacement level garbage he put up through the first 51 games to a much more respectable .260/.374/.449 after 162 games, a .358 wOBA that was his worst as a Yankee but still 19th best among the 62 qualified outfielders in baseball. Swisher did struggle against righties (.335 wOBA) compared to lefties (.412), but it wasn’t enough to stop him from leading the team in OBP and posting the seventh highest walk rate (15.0%) in baseball. At 3.4 bWAR and 3.8 fWAR, he was either the 19th or 25th best outfielder in the game, depending on your statistical preference.

The sluggish start and dreadful postseason showing (4-for-19 with a walk) sort of puts a damper on yet another fine season for Swisher, who at this point has to be considered one of the best pickups of the Brian Cashman era when considering cost. He’s gotten on base and hit for power every season he’s been in New York, and he hasn’t spent a day on the disabled list. The Yankees are very likely to pick up Swisher’s $10.25M option for 2012, bringing him back to Bronx for at least one more season, a season that will almost certainly be productive.