The Day The Evil Empire Was Born

It’s easy to forget just how big Jose Contreras was in Cuba. He was the country’s undisputed ace in international play for nearly a decade, helping Cuba to the silver medal in the 2000 Olympics and gold is numerous other events. Contreras first popped up on the big league radar in March of 1999, when he struck out ten Orioles in eight shutout innings during an exhibition game in Havana. Later in the year he struck out 13 in eight innings on one day’s rest against Team USA in the Pan Am Games, the first time Team USA was allowed to use professional players.

Contreras defected from Cuba in October of 2002 while in Mexico for a tournament, leaving his wife and young daughters behind. Contreras made his way to San Diego and eventually gained asylum in the United States, where he and agent Jaime Torres started fielding offers from Major League teams even though he wasn’t yet a free agent.

“Most of the organizations I thought were going to contact us have contacted us, and that includes the Yankees,” said Torres a little more than two weeks after the defection.

The Yankees needed to clear money to pursue their top two targets that offseason, Contreras and Hideki Matsui. They also wanted to re-sign Roger Clemens. Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza were allowed to walk as free agents, and rumors circulated that they may trade Andy Pettitte and his $11.5M salary to free up more payroll room. Doubts about Contreras’ age persisted (he was listed at 31 at the time), but nonetheless the Red Sox and Mariners got heavily involved in the bidding. Contreras had been working out with Torres in Nicaragua that winter, and Boston went so far as to buy out every room of the hotel where he was staying.

“The Boss, that was something that was a one up on us when they did that, it was a shrewd move,” said Brian Cashman recently, “and [George Steinbrenner] was not going to be denied.”

“We were smoking cigars with Contreras and drinking rum until about 4 o’clock in the morning,” said then-Red Sox GM Theo Epstein recently. “He told us he always wanted to be a Red Sox, and then the next morning the Yankees offered him about $10 million more.”

The Yankees signed Contreras on Christmas Eve, giving him four years and $32M. Coincidentally, the contract became official on this date in 2003. Orlando Hernandez, who had spoken to Contreras by phone a few times after his defection, was traded to the Expos in January to further free up some money. Matsui had agreed to a deal a few weeks earlier, and Clemens would re-sign a few days later. The Yankees got all their men.

”The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America,” said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino after news of the signing broke.

The Yankees and their fans have since embraced the Evil Empire moniker. The Imperial March — Darth Vader’s theme music in Star Wars — is a pregame staple at Yankee Stadium, and you can buy unlicensed Evil Empire merchandise right outside the Stadium on River Ave. Everyone knows the Yankees spend more money than every other team, and Lucchino gave us all something to rally around. No one tries to hide from the bloated payroll, which is something Lucchino’s Red Sox can certainly be accused of in recent years. We’ve embraced it.

Contreras’ contract drew the comment from Lucchino, but the Yankees have been operating this way for decades. They’ve always been in the hunt for big money free agents, always been at or near the top in payroll. It’s become the Yankee way, and they’ve been really successful going it. The Evil Empire crack did a fine job of relaying Lucchino’s frustration, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the team’s success and continues to be to this day.

Tex should focus on pitch recognition from the left side, not bunting

Tex swinging over what I can only imagine is a curveball. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty)

About a year ago I took a look at Mark Teixeira’s curveball problem. While anyone who watched Tex hit in 2010 didn’t need an elaborate post telling them he struggled against the curve, it bore watching as he had posted above-average run values versus the curveball in his two seasons prior. 2010 was also a down year for Tex against the fastball, as he posted a five-year low (a mere 7.3 runs above average) against a pitch he punished to the tune of 38.8 runs above average a mere two years earlier.

Tex found himself back in Yankee fans’ crosshairs again last week, after suggesting that he might try bunting from the left side of the plate this coming season in a misguided attempt to beat the shift. Brien Jackson at IIATMS noted that the shift isn’t the real problem, William Juliano published a typically comprehensive look at Tex’s offensive numbers from both sides of the plate hitting to different fields, and TYA’s Michael Eder pondered whether Tex bunting would actually work.

Today I thought I’d take a slightly different tack and dive into how pitchers are attacking Mark Teixeira, left-handed hitter. The good news for Tex is that he improved his performance against the fastball this season (although wFF numbers are cumulative from both sides of the plate), fininishing the year at 12.3 runs above average. Still, this is a far cry from the heady days of wFF numbers in the high-20s. Unfortunately for Tex, his woes against the curveball continued in 2011, and he actually tied for the 9th-worst wCU/100 mark in the American League. So what’s going on with Tex against the curve? The below chart shows various outcomes for Tex against the curveball when hitting from the left side of the plate (data c/o both and

Following the curve’s whopping success against left-handed Tex in 2010, righties slightly increased the number of hooks they threw the Yankee slugger last season, from 11.2% to 11.8%. Now obviously we’re talking about a pretty small rise, but with Tex also seeing significantly fewer four-seamers than he did in 2009 (46.4% down to 38.1%), the minimal increase carries a bit more weight.

Right-handers threw the curve less frequently for strikes in 2011, but Tex still swung at them with essentially the same frequency as the previous year. He hit them in the air more frequently than he had previously as a Yankee (no surprise given his predilection for popping out to the infield), fouled them off slightly more frequently, hit fewer on the ground, and to his credit, actually whiffed less frequently than the previous two years. However, he also stopped hitting the curve for as much power, following a 1.3% HR% in 2009 with two straight seasons of 0.4%.

Given the curveball’s continued effectiveness against Tex, I was curious to see whether its deployment increased depending on the count. The below chart shows curveball frequency when the pitcher is ahead (I’m considering 0-0 as the pitcher being ahead in this case, because anecdotally it seems like Tex never swings first pitch, even though B-Ref says he did at least 56 times last year):

I was a bit surprised to see the curve being most frequently deployed on 0-2 and 1-2 in 2009, but perhaps the most telling component of this graph is that pitchers have significantly increased their likelihood of trying to get ahead of Tex at the start of his at-bats, dropping a curve in on the first pitch 13.9% of the time last season, a three-year high.

And what’s been happening when Tex does make contact?

His LD BABIP spiked back up last season after a woeful .250 in 2010, but was still nearly 200 points below its 2009 high of .833. His FB BABIP on the curve unsurprisingly fell to a three-year low, and his GB BABIP basically remained constant.

Now, in fairness to Tex, part of the curveball issue is that he has to face some outstanding curveball-throwing pitchers. Out of the 233 curveballs he saw from righties in 2011, 79, or 34%, were thrown by Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander, James Shields, Felix Hernandez, Jeremy Hellickson and John Lackey (pitchers he had 10 at-bats or more against each). Outside of Lackey, those hurlers are among the best in in the league, and so Tex probably needs to be cut some slack.

However, he’s shown that he’s not completely useless against the curveball in the past, and it would bode well for the 2012 Yankees if he can recognize that right-handed pitchers are probably going to attack him earlier in the count with curveballs and ideally hold off from swinging at said curves unless he actually is able to revise his approach from the left side with Kevin Long.

The Ballad of Charlie Hayes

(Kathy Willens/AP)

While the early 90s Yankees struggled in many ways, one position they perpetually struggled to fill was third base. In the mid 80s Mike Pagliarulo capably filled the position, producing above-average offensive numbers for his first four years in the bigs. But his production dipped considerably in 1988, and the Yanks traded him the following year. They then struggled to fill the position*, inserting decidedly below-average hitters such as Mike Blowers, Randy Velarde, Pat Kelly, and even a utility player named Jim Leyrtiz. They clearly needed an upgrade at the position.

*For some reason, Velarde was a somewhat beloved player among kids from my generation. I’m fairly certain it’s because he hit .340 in 1989, after the Yanks had traded Pags. While he did perform a bit better in the mid 90s, I definitely remember thinking he was good in the early part of the decade, despite his actually horrible performance.

In 1991 the position hit something of a low mark. The Yankees started the season using 26-year-old Mike Blowers and 25-year-old Torey Luvullo, but both performed horribly. Jim Leyritz got some reps there, but not many (only 91 PA on the season). Eventually they settled on 23-year-old rookie Pat Kelly, a second baseman blocked by Steve Sax. Overall their third basemen produced a 65 OPS+ in 1991, 13th in the AL and far closer to the basement than to 12th. While pitching was clearly the priority during that period, an upgrade at third base was absolutely necessary.

For most of the off-season it was unclear what the Yankees would do at third. Luvullo’s performance put him out of the picture; he spent all of 1992 in Columbus before being granted free agency. They had traded Blowers during the 1991 season (for a player to be named later). The spot appeared to be Kelly’s again, but in early January they shipped Sax to Chicago, leaving second base open for Kelly. It seemed that Velarde was the starter by default. But two days before the Sax trade, the Yankees made a trade that would later net them their third baseman for 1992. They traded Darrin Chapin, whose name I vaguely remember, to Philadelphia for a player to be named later. More than a month later, after pitchers and catchers reported, the Phillies sent Charlie Hayes to the Yankees.

(Apparently the holdup was a technicality. The Yankees didn’t have any open spots on the 40-man roster, and so they held off on officially announcing Hayes. They eventually designated Alan Mills for assignment.)

If the internet had been around at the time of the trade, we’d have thought little of it. Hayes was a largely unremarkable third baseman. He had been the Phillies starter for the previous two and a half seasons, following a trade from San Fran. In his career he had produced a .276 OBP and a 78 OPS+. Still, that was an improvement over what the Yankees had thrown out there in previous years. The position wasn’t his to lose, though; Hensley Meulens was in the running for the job. Their competition lasted all spring, with Hayes emerging as the winner at the very end. Muelens spent the season playing third at AAA.

Hayes turned out to be a revelation. His overall numbers might not have looked impressive — .257/.297/.409, a 97 OPS+ — but he represented a massive improvement over the previous years’ third basemen. With some quality backup work from Velarde and Leyritz, the Yankees moved from 13th to 4th in offensive production from third base, posting a combined 107 OPS+ at the position. That went along with an overall five-win improvement over 1991, a success for Buck Showalter in his first year at the helm.

I remember growing attached to Hayes that season, probably because he was simply so much better than his predecessors. I had only vague memories of Pags, and most of them were of his fading production in the late 80s. I had been used to dreck, so watching someone serviceable was quite the thrill. It came as a great disappointment, then, when I read the newspaper on November 18th, 1992. Major League Baseball had just held an expansion draft for the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, and the Rockies selected Hayes with their third pick.

Less than a month later, though, I had forgotten all about Hayes. On December 15th the Yankees signed Wade Boggs to man the hot corner. This was exciting not only because he was Wade Freaking Boggs, but because he was my best friend’s favorite player. (Despite my best friend being as die-hard a Yankee fan as I was at the time.) Lo and behold, Boggs, even at age 35 and coming off a colossally disapointing season, delivered the first above-average performance for a primary Yanks third baseman since Pags in 1987. You’d think Hayes would have become an afterthought, but that was not the case.

As it turns out, 1993 was a career year for Hayes. He played in 157 games for the fledgling Rockies, and he belted out a league-leading 45 doubles at Mile High Stadium. He ended the season with a .305/.355/.522 line, thereby producing his first season with an OBP over .300. He played in only 113 games the next season, with a .348 OBP but a bit less power. It was still better than almost any other season in his past. After the 1994 season he reached free agency, signing back on with the Phillies, where he produced essentially average numbers. Yet again, though, he produced a .340 OBP.

Before the 1996 season Hayes found a job with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe it was the change of parks that killed his numbers, but he was pretty terrible through most of August, producing a .301 OBP and a 73 OPS+. Then, just days before the waiver trade deadline on August 31st, the Pirates flipped him to the Yankees for a guy named Chris Corn. Hayes got some playing time down the stretch, though he performed at less than optimal levels — essentially, he had turned back into his pre-1992 self for the whole 1996 season. He also did a whole lot of nothing in the playoffs, going 5 for 28, all singles, with three walks.

Of course, most of us most prominently remember Hayes for a single moment during those 1996 playoffs, his catch to end the World Series. Odd how that works. A guy who did absolutely nothing for the team during the season and in the postseason gets featured on every highlight reel. But we’ll all remember that moment, and so we’ll all remember Hayes.

He did stick around for the 1997 season — he had apparently signed a four-year deal with the Pirates — and in 398 PA he hit .258/.332/.397, a 90 OPS+. After the season, however, the Yanks planned to move in a new direction, and once again Hayes was involved in a funky player to be named later scenario. In early November the Yankees unloaded Kenny Rogers on the A’s for a player to be named later. On November 17th they dealt Hayes to the Giants, and then the next day they received Scott Brosius as the player to be named from Oakland.

In many ways, Hayes represented the plight of the early 90s Yankees. Here was a decidedly below-average player who represented an improvement. When he came in and produced almost-average numbers, it was a revelation. It was actually disappointing to see him go after the season, though the Wade Boggs acquisition headed that wound pretty quickly. And then, in his return trip, he turned in a performance that in no way could be described as remarkable, yet he’s front and center in one of the most iconic moments in recent team history.

And that, my friends, is the ballad of a man they call Charlie Hayes.

A previous version erroneously cited Coors Field as the Rockies’ home in 1993.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 6th, 2012

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Super Bowl XLVI Open Thread

Will Eli Manning's permanent dumb face save the day? (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

I’m a Jets fan, but I can’t imagine not rooting for the Giants today. I guess it helps that I’m not the biggest football fan in the world — so my allegiance isn’t ironclad — but ultimately it comes down to the New York thing. I mean, if the Mets and Red Sox were in the World Series, would you not be rooting for those fellas from Flushing? This isn’t any different. New York vs. Boston, Eli vs. Brady … doesn’t take much to back the G-Men today. Lets go Gi-Ants.

The New York Yankees Remix

Flawless combining of sports and music. (Used under a creative common license from flickr user vtooky)

Sports have a lot in common with music.

First off, it’s easy to get over-invested. You love a band? Suddenly, you’re seeing three of their shows in a row, driving up and down the state and maybe into (shudder) Massachusetts. You might be listening to the same album over and over again. Likewise, I’m sure plenty of Yankees fans are going to Boston, DC, Queens, and Baltimore to check out your team. Also, there’s the fact we end up watching these guys play the same game 162+ times. That’s a lot to watch the same damn thing. I think we’re all crazy.

Additionally, there is nothing more pointless than arguing either music or sports with your friends. Your friend is Mets fan? Get new friends, but first, try to convince them to be a Yankees fan. Sadly, futile. Meanwhile, your friend likes that band you hate? There is no way they will ever tell you it’s not the best thing they’ve ever listened to. Meanwhile, you will make an equal fool of yourself singing in your cubicle or talking avidly about your fantasy team. (Hint: No one cares about your fantasy team.)

With this, I present Yankees as songs from my iPod.

Derek Jeter as “The Lightning Strike,” by Snow Patrol

There are lots of great things that Jeter presents: as a baseball player, he’s really good, really consistent, determined, disciplined, and talented. As a front presented to the media, he’s calm, with no surprises and no big crises; he doesn’t get into trouble, and as a result he doesn’t ever have to wiggle out of it. Jeter’s the golden boy, as everyone knows.

“The Lightning Strike” off A Hundred Million Suns, gives the listener all these things. Not only does it match Jeter’s lengthy career (the song has four parts and combines for a whopping 16:18 in play time), but the song starts with an intriguing intro before being played with a dramatic flare through all four parts. It even comes with a part around 9:35 where you thought it was over, but then you realize there’s a lot more to go. Despite the dramatic notes, there’s no surprises – gravitas is the norm, like Jeter, and there’s no random cymbal banging or screaming guitar solos where you didn’t expect them. The song ends leaving the listening feeling fulfilled, like this whole story was written and told perfectly, and couldn’t have been any other way, and when Jeter’s career is over… well, how could it have been any better? Ain’t no one out there like El Capitan.

David Robertson as “Don’t Stop Me Now,” by Queen

In the Non-Mariano Rivera division of things that happen in baseball games, is there anything that made you feel more secure in 2011 than David Robertson? The man was flat-out amazing on the mound in relief, and as such I think he’s worthy of such a great song.

Quite frankly, no one could have stopped Robertson, both last year and ’11, and even with a little regression he’d still be a downright amazing reliever. He had a real good time. He felt alive. He was floating around in ecstasy.

You get the point.

While there was usually a tenseness that came with Robertson’s appearance, they almost always ended in the impossible-to-frown-at cheeriness that also accompanies this song. Both the song and his at-bats tended to follow an easy routine: he throws fastballs, and curveballs, and strike guys out. Meanwhile, the song, like the baseball season, becomes bigger both in terms of leverage and Freddie Mercury’s voice, and Robertson still has it in the bag. With his strikeout rate’s rocket ship already reached Mars, he’s going to make a supersonic man out of you. By that, I mean he’s going to embarrass you with his pitches and make you ashamed as you walk back to your dugout.

Whether you think 200 degrees means the heat on his fastball or the break of his offspeed pitches, it was all enough to earn him a pretty awesome nickname (sadly, not Mr. Fahrenheit).

(Shameless Plug: I did a Yankees year in review video to this song.)

Phil Hughes as “Vida La Vida” by Coldplay

Phil Hughes used to be everything. He was the future. He was brilliance. He was the next 6-year-100M contact. He was the Yankees’ pride and joy. He was the kind of guy you ran off to get the jersey of, the one you knew was gonna mean everything.

But that was when he ruled the world.

These days, Hughes is but a shadow of the flawless prospect we imagined him as. Injuries and ineffectiveness have kicked him down from the position, and he’s gone from being The Future to fighting for a rotation spot. Given as how entertaining the “Phil Hughes is Fat” jokes can sometimes be, there’s a good chance that even if he returns to form, they’ll persist, and that possibility is even greater if he doesn’t. Both Hughes and Coldplay tell stories about rising and falling from power, and how easy it can be. After all, baseball’s almost as difficult as ruling a country, I bet.

While the song ends on a morbid, depressing note, I’m hoping Phil can break the trend here and get himself together in 2012. It wouldn’t be legitimately awful for him to end up as a reliever, but it does seem a little a let-down when he was so good in the first half in 2010. That seems far away now, doesn’t it?

Anyway, because this is music, I’m sure there will be many differing opinions on song choice. And because this is sports, I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me. That’s what the comments are for.

(I shamelessly modified this idea from where Friend of the Blog Rebecca Glass discusses the Yankees as mythical creatures. Derek Jeter is a unicorn.)

RAB’s Super Bowl Sunday Trivia Contest

UPDATE: We have 4 winners, who have been contacted via email. Please feel free to keep playing for fun!

With the focus of the sports world on the NFL and the Yankees mostly done tinkering with their roster until pitchers and catchers report, RAB is running a Yankees trivia contest as a diversion to keep you folks busy before the Big Game.

The Prizes:

We have 4 prizes to give away.

1. The Last Boy by Jane Leavy
2. Donnie Baseball by Mike Shalin
3. 1961* by Phil Pepe
4. Yankees Classics by Les Krantz (with a DVD)

The winners will get to choose their prizes, in order of finish (first place chooses first, etc).

The Rules:

The game functions as a sort of treasure hunt. The first question is below, at the end of this post. The answer to that question should be put into your web browser’s url area, where you should follow it with This will lead you to a page with another question, where the same rules apply. On each page, specific instructions are included to make sure you enter the right words, so be careful. Here’s an example:

Q: Who was the last Yankee to reach 3000 hits? Provide his name followed by his uniform number.

A: The correct answer is Derek Jeter, and his uniform number is 2. Enter into your web browser, and you would move on to the next question.

There are 46 questions of varying difficulty, corresponding to the 46 Super Bowls of varying degrees of awfulness. The winners must leave a comment on the final page (not on this post!), and also email me (mandel42 at gmail) the answers to all 46 questions, so keep a list as you go along. The first four people to reach the final page, comment, and email me are the winners (One entry per person. Any attempts at multiple entries will disqualify the offender entirely).

Some of you may have played this game before, but I made a few tweaks and added a few questions, so I hope you will give it another try. Good luck, and happy hunting.

Question # 1: Let’s start with an easy one. What were the Yankees called immediately before they were the Yankees? Give the full city and team name (ie