Mariano’s 2010 dip against lefties

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

By the results, there was nothing out of the ordinary with Mariano Rivera‘s 2010 season. He hit a couple of rough patches, including a period early in the season where his ribs prevented him from pitching in games, but at the end he had delivered his customary sub-2.00 ERA. His peripherals also came close to his 2009 numbers. The biggest difference was in his strikeouts, down to 6.75 per nine. While we typically regard Mo as immortal around these parts, I wouldn’t blame anyone for asking whether this forecasts some trouble for 2011.

While Mo’s strikeout numbers were down across the board, the biggest difference came against left-handed hitters. He still struck out 31 of the 120 righties he faced, 8.90 K/9, but he struck out only 14 of 110 lefties, 4.40 K/9. In 2009 he struck out 35 of 130 lefties faced, or 9.45 per nine. Mo has always been particularly tough against lefties, getting them to hit dinky grounders and humpback liners in addition to the swings and misses. Might this decreased effectiveness against lefties affect his 2011 performance?

In order to determine the answer we have to find the reason why Mo was less effective in striking out left-handed hitters in 2010. Unfortunately, this is not a question which we are readily equipped to answer. It’s more of a scouting issue, and while we’ve learned plenty by watching hundreds of games every year, this is still a question that is better directed towards a trained scout. In fact, it would probably be best answered by multiple scouts, since the differences can be so subtle and nuanced that different people might see it in different ways. But we do have one tool at our immediate disposal: FanGraphs heat maps.

This morning FanGraphs proprietor David Appelman introduced a customizable heat map tool that will make for many pretty visualizations. In his initial post he used Mo as an example. Yet he uses the red-to-yellow heat scheme, and hasn’t set the intensity particularly high. When examining Mariano’s cutter against lefties in 2009 and 2010 I turned the intensity all the way to 100, and changed the format to display more colors. That should give us a better visual idea of what he did in those two years.

The most noticeable difference comes on the pitches slightly out of the zone. In 2009 he spotted the cutter just out of the zone to lefties. It’s harder to hit a ball out of the zone, and we know that lefties have a hard time when Rivera throws his cutter inside. In 2010 you see a concentration of cutters up and in to lefties, but there isn’t that same concentration of balls that run just out of the zone — inside pitches to lefties. We can’t say for sure that this is the sole cause, but it certainly appears to be part of the answer.

Another neat little feature of these heat maps is that it provides pitch type splits. Check out Mo’s four-seamer. He used it effectively against lefties in 2009 when he wanted to pitch them away. In 2010, though, he hardly touched the pitch against lefties. That also might be part of the answer. Perhaps Mo needs to use that fastball to keep lefties guessing.

Again, these heat maps don’t provide us with answers. Instead they put data into a format that we can easily see. Maybe Mo’s lack of strikeouts against lefties had nothing to do with where he spotted his cutter. But more than likely I expect it played a part. That’s his bread and butter, and he just wasn’t ramming the cutter down lefties’ throats as he has in the past. I suspect that he’ll get back to that in 2011.

Building depth using the middle and late rounds of the draft

The best 17th round pick in Yankees history, and it's not even close. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

First round draft picks and high profile international signings garner most of our attention and make us excited for the future, as they should. These players are the best of the best, at least when it comes to the amateur ranks. They’re drafted early and signed to seven-figure contracts because teams expect them to be above-average contributors at the Major League level, if not franchise cornerstones. The Yankees have one of the better farm systems in baseball right now, and although first round picks and international bonus babies contribute a great deal to that, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and his staff have done an exceptional job of finding talent in the middle and lower rounds of the draft.

Of the 20 drafted players among the Yankees’ top 30 prospects according to Baseball America, nine were selected after the fifth round. Seven of those nine were selected in a double digit round, and four of those seven signed for no more than $150,000. This isn’t just a case of the Yankees throwing money at top amateurs who’ve fallen for whatever reason, though they’ve certainly done that aplenty (Dellin Betances and Austin Jackson come to mind). They’ve legitimately drafted and developed quite a few middle round talents into actual prospects.

Depending on who you ask, the best of the middle-to-late round crop is Brandon Laird, a 27th round pick that signed for just $120,000. It could also be David Phelps (14th round and $150,000) or maybe even D.J. Mitchell (10th round and $450,000), but that’s just players still with the organization. Late round picks Casey Erickson (10th round) and Dan McCutchen (13th round) were flipped for help at the big league level, as were middle rounders Mitch Hilligoss and Chase Weems (both sixth round picks). Two recent fifth round picks  – Zach Kroenke and George Kontos – have been selected in the Rule 5 Draft (Kroenke twice), so it’s clear other clubs value them.

Oppenheimer has been at the helm for six drafts now, and he’s had a total of ten players reach the big leagues (only counting players the Yankees actually signed, so they don’t credit for Doug Fister, Justin Turner, and Drew Storen). That doesn’t seem like a lot, but remember, the last few drafts are still a work in progress. Of those ten players, just three (Brett Gardner, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain) were drafted before the fifth round. Of the remaining eight, five were taken no earlier than the eighth round. David Robertson highlights this group, a completely unheralded 17th round pick that signed for $200,000 and has turned into a strikeout heavy setup reliever.

Of course, it’s important to keep our expectations realistic. We’re not talking about stars here; getting Albert Pujols in the 13th round or Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round or Jorge Posada in the 24th round or Mike Piazza in the 62nd round is a once in a lifetime event. Most of the middle-to-late round players project to be back-end starters or role players or extraneous relievers, but that has value. For every D-Rob the team develops, that’s one less Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier they have to sign as free agents. Each Colin Curtis or Kevin Russo is one less Randy Winn or Miguel Cairo. The Yankees are getting away from that reliance on veterans in this miscellaneous roles, which saves payroll and allows for greater roster flexibility.

The Yankees will surely need to rely on some of these non-top draft picks this season, especially given the current state of their rotation. Whether that means throwing Phelps or Mitchell to the AL East wolves or using them in trades for an established starter remains to be seen, but they’re an important cog in the pinstriped machine going forward.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 31st, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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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 Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

{democracy:136}

Cashman On Development, KT, Montero, Misc.

"No Peter, I wouldn't agree that Darnell McDonald will be the AL MVP." (AP Photo/Bob Child)

Josh Norris sat down for a chat with Brian Cashman on Friday (part one, part two), getting the GM to spill the beans about a number of topics, including Jesus Montero, the draft, and a bunch of other stuff. Unfortunately he didn’t say anything controversial, so those of you who enjoy that sort of stuff are out of luck. Rather than give you just a link and telling you to check it out, I wanted to talk briefly about some of the stuff Cashman discussed. I block-quoted some of it and added my two cents below, but still, you should go check out the interview in its entirety. Josh did a great job as usual. On to the quotes…

We have been very aggressive in the draft and re-dedicated ourselves to tools, not necessarily to performance coming out of the amateur ranks.

I’m going to focus on the tools over performance part, because the Yankees have drafted quite a few guys with questionable college performances and turned them into quality prospects because they focused on the talent. David Phelps jumps to mind, he had a 4.65 ERA and a decidedly unsexy 7.26 K/9 in his final year at Notre Dame, but his minor league career features a 2.50 ERA (382.1 IP) and last year he struck out eight men per nine. David Adams hit just .286/.384/.411 in his draft year at Virginia, but as a pro he owns a .281/.370/.439 batting line with wood bats against much better competition. Andrew Brackman belongs in this conversation as well.

I guess the point here is that the development process is just as, if not more important than the talent acquisition process. You can spend all the money in the world and select Baseball America’s top ten draft prospects every year, but having the coaching staffs and personnel in the minors to help these kids realize their potential through instruction and training is absolutely crucial. At the professional level, pure talent will only take a player so far, they’ve got to put the work in and the team has the have the people in place to help made adjustments.

Kevin [Towers] and I are dear friends, but I only (got) Kevin involved because I knew he was going to be a GM someday somewhere else, but I wanted to get an outside perspective of our system. He’s a tremendous evaluator of talent, so Damon Oppenheimer used him for the draft. He went out there and saw the amateurs that were out there. He went through our farm system, and he was a guy I could lean on and ask for advice on a lot of different things. It was nice to have him for the short time we had him.

Until now, we had basically no idea what Towers did for the Yankees last summer aside from speculation about the Chad Huffman and Steve Garrison waiver claims. Cashman also said he had KT evaluate the team’s present minor league talent for an objective take on what they had, admitting that internal biases often come into play. I’m curious to know which (if any) drafted players came on Towers’ recommendation; he’s always been a polish and probability guy, but the Yankees went after upside and took a lot of risk this summer.

[The Russell Martin signing is] an indicator of who’s going to be the starting catcher. It’s going to be Russell Martin, period. Then after that, the back-up situation’s going to be open for discussion between Cervelli, Montero, Romine, we’ll see. Or all of them. … They all could split time and get a little education in the process.

Last week Cashman appeared to say that the starting catcher’s job would be an open competition, but that was a misquote. The competition is for the backup job, though I’m not sure how much of a competition it will really be. That’s not a knock on the process, it’s great to let the kids think they have a shot to earn a job in camp, but I believe Cervelli has a head start on the job simply because Montero and Romine need to play every day to continue their development.

Cashman also commented on Montero’s much maligned defense, saying “We believe he can catch, and we believe he can catch long-term.” That’s all well and good, but as Kevin Goldstein mentioned at Saturday’s BP/SABR event, the Yankees are the only ones that believe he’s a catcher. No one outside the organization believes that. Yes, some bias comes into play, but it’s basically the Yankees against the world. I think that as long as he can fake catcher as well as Posada did over the last few years, the Yankees will take it and wait to change Montero’s position until some yet to be determined point in the future. Or they could trade him for someone really, really good.

Open Thread: Today in weird contract clauses

I think that's Crawford's Obama pose. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

The Red Sox have apparently put a clause in Carl Crawford’s contract that prevents any team he’s traded to from turning around and trading him from the Yankees. I’m not sure how exactly this would be enforced; if the Sox eventually trade him to the Angels, and then the Angels want to deal him to the Yanks at some point in the future, what can Boston do? Take him back? I suppose they could bitch and moan to MLB and get Selig could step in, but if they’re so afraid of him playing for New York, why would they deal him if he’s healthy and productive? If they trade him because he stinks, you’d think they’d want him on the Yankees. Eh, whatever.

Anyways, here is the night’s open thread. The Pro Bowl is apparently still being played these days, and can be seen on FOX at 7pm ET. That means no Simpsons or Family Guy. Lame. The Knicks are also playing tonight, but that’s pretty much it. Go ahead and talk about anything your heart desires.

Yanks Looking to Fill DL Spot – Chavez Interested

"The bat is actually holding my arms up. Don't tell anyone." (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Yesterday, a name popped up in my feed that I hasn’t seen in a while: Eric Chavez. Apparently the man is out of rehab for the millionth time, is finally off the A’s payroll, and now he’s looking for a new team to help pay his medical bills. There were whispers that the Yanks might be interested in the guy, along with White Sox, Mariners and Blue Jays.

Chavez was drafted by the A’s in the first round in 1996 and destroyed his way through the minor leagues. He was a September call-up in 1998, and played his first full season only three years after being drafted. He signed away his arbitration years and stuck with the A’s longer than anyone not named Ricky Henderson with two different extensions: the first in the 2000 offseason, for four years and $11M, and the second in the 2004 offseason for six years and $66M. There was a seventh year club option, but Oakland declined, leaving him a free agent for this upcoming year.

For the Yankees, this is one big fat pass. No. Carry on. Nothing to see here. It’s not that Chavez isn’t a decent baseball player: he’s got some left-handed power and could be a good choice to hang out on the bench until we needed him. He hit 25 homers or more for five years straight and, at the height of his career, hit nearly 30 while taking a league-leading 95 walks. He also featured on that playoff-contending 2006 Oakland A’s team with Zito, Harden, Swisher, and Huston Street. He’s capable with the glove and plays third base. He’s certainly an upgrade to the Ramiuardo Penunez combination we play sometimes over there, so why not?

The problem is that Eric Chavez is made out of glass. It’s not the bulletproof glass they use in prison windows that never breaks, either. It’s the delicate, handblown glass that’s in those expensive little knick-knacks you put on your mantle and breathing on it wrong could shatter it into a million pieces. In the last three years, Chavez has been on the 60-day DL six times. He’s had two surgeries on his back, shoulder surgery, two bulging disks in his neck, and neurological pain in his elbow. The man is, for lack of a better description, a complete and total mess.The last time he showed up in 100 games was 2006. He hasn’t even been able to hit the 50 game mark in the past three years.

While it’s possible (if unlikely) that Chavez manages to stay healthy for a year, there’s absolutely no guarantee that he’d be able to recapture the power that would make him a decent bat off the bench. Even before his injuries, Chavez was losing grip on the power he needed to be effective. His OPS has been trending downward since 2004 even if you cut out the years he was too hurt to make an impact either way.

All in all, it’s a bad idea. While Chavez might have the potential to be a decent lefty pinch-hit bat, I don’t think he’d manage to stay healthy enough to be effective. Even if he does, it’s doubtful he’ll be able to wrap his hands around the power that made him good in his better seasons. He’s 33 years old right now and he’s not getting any younger. Maybe he’s someone to look into next season if everything goes right for him in 2011, but quite frankly our DL spot will probably be filled by Mark Prior, after being vacated by Nick Johnson (played in 24 games). The Blue Jays can have him. I hear they have good healthcare in Canada.

The Black Hole Yankees, Mel Hall, and Me

As most of you already know, Mel Hall was a loathsome human being, a gutless bully, and a rotten apple with a stunning dearth of decency.

But flashback to the late-80s, and Hall was one of my favorite Yankees. It’s not easy to admit this now, and I wince when I think that I spent several years of my boyhood admiring a disgraceful cancer of a person. He was part of the haphazard collection of futility masquerading as the New York Yankees on WPIX 11 Alive! At seven-thirty each night, I sat riveted as the buoyancy of Scooter Rizutto’s commentary was tested by a relentless parade of cast-offs, has-beens, and over-the-hill prima donnas. It was a franchise whose blueprint for success consisted of chasing after aging superstars and overpaying them through their decline – an M.O. that had already become a vintage George Steinbrenner trait. Now, the excesses and inanity of the past decade had finally culminated in a series of atrociously bad teams and Seinfeld’s most memorable Frank Costanza moment.

The Steinbrenner dogma permeated all levels of the ballclub. As blown-out 35-year-old hamstrings, groins, and rotator cuffs forced an urgency for new blood, the hapless reinforcements brought up from a ravaged farm system quickly revealed their futility. (Which is generally what 7th-rounders are generally expected to reveal.) But that was okay, because there was always another 30-something former All-Star on the horizon that some second-division team was trying to unload. Until this time, the Yankees teams of this 80s weren’t so much bad as they were poorly constructed: while top-heavy with fading sluggers like Jack Clark and Ken Phelps, the pitching staffs were mostly populated by soft-tossing journeymen and AAA cannon fodder.

And yet, Mel Hall’s 1989 acquisition for spare parts represented, at least to some degree, a break from convention at the time. Still only 29, Hall had moderate lefty power – never a detriment at Yankee Stadium. He also possessed versatility in that he could play both corner outfield positions and even centerfield in a pinch – though, by all available measures, horrendously.

Hall’s role, however, was ill defined from the start. With a Yankees outfield that was already set going into the ’89 campaign, he would initially serve as an expensive, defensively challenged bench player whose splits suggested that most halfway decent pitchers could more or less have their way with him, irrespective of their handed-ness. More ominously, over his previous two seasons, he had posted a combined 1.1 WAR, and he hadn’t seen the fun side of 100 OPS+ since Reaganomics.

But after seeing him play, I didn’t care about any of that. Hall had actually been on my radar since the previous season, when I watched him uncoil one of the coolest homerun strokes I’d ever seen off Yankees ace-by-default Rick Rhoden. And as I write this now, I can’t think of any bigger indictment of teenage judgment than my believing that launching a bomb off the shell of Rick Rhoden was impressive.

Being a Wiffle Ball connoisseur of idiosyncratic batting stances was probably what got me on the Mel Hall bandwagon to begin with. Hall straddled the batter’s box with a wide-open lefty gait, his back leg crouched at a 90 degree angle and his front foot yawning to the right, all the way on the opposite side of the box. It was an impossible stance, one that couldn’t possibly allow for enough torque or drive to generate any power, and I pictured an exasperated high school coach pleading with an insufferably stubborn teenage version of Hall to bag it altogether. So in my mind, it was also a defiant stance, making it all the more appealing.

Regardless, normal people couldn’t hit like this. I know. I tried. And when my Babe Ruth coach caught my awkward rendition of the cocky leftfielder in a live game, he informed me that a.) I needed to pull my head out of my ass, and that b.) I had enough trouble hitting like myself, much less a freaking Yankee. Tough love.

At that point, it wasn’t about imitating a cool stance anymore. It was about being a rebel by association (or so I thought), about channeling another person’s cool confidence to help alleviate my own gnawing feelings of athletic ineptitude and utter dorkiness.

A few days after my first failed attempt at mimicking the Yankees fourth outfielder, I summoned up the nerve to give it another go. It happened in the late innings of a thumping at the hands of Kiwanis Club, and I was mired in one of my 0-for-infinity slumps. There was literally nothing to lose.

I waited until halfway through the at-bat before dropping into the inimitable crouch. The second I descended, I knew I’d nailed it: The gait, the crouch, the “Bring the heat, meat” bat waggle – all perfect. The kid on the mound paused before going into his windup, glancing at me as if to say, “Mel Hall? Really?”

Really. But two pitches later, I was a strikeout victim slogging my way back to the dugout under the glare of my coach and the simmering contempt of my teammates. As I descended the dugout steps, I overheard a grown woman in the stands mutter, “He thinks he’s black.”

I didn’t know this, but my dad had seen everything from the stands. He’d left work early enough to catch the last few innings of the game and to give me a ride home. Afterwards, in the parking lot, he polished off a concession stand hot dog as I shoved my 10-speed into his trunk. He knew I was smack in my Mel Hall phase but couldn’t for the life of him understand why. Breaking the uncomfortable silence, he said, “Jim Rice is who you should be looking at: balanced stance; smooth, level swing; quiet bat.” He loved Jim Rice and the Red Sox, which made for a bumpy ride between us at times. He was also right, of course, but I’d be damned if I’d ever emulate a Red Sock, future Hall of Famer or not.

On the drive home my dad offered a more palatable solution: “What about Mattingly? Why not try to hit like him?”

It was a fair point. I did love Donnie Baseball, but so did everyone else. Mattingly was the Yankees. In contrast, Mel Hall was a placeholder on a downtrodden team, a semi-talented nobody. To my adolescent eyes, he was an outlaw, a mercenary, and a rogue hell bent on proving everyone wrong.

As we pulled up to my house, I grudgingly ended my seven-minute vow of silence. “Mel Hall’s cool,” I blurted. They were the most misguided words I’d ever spoken.