RAB Live Chat

2010 Season Preview: Managing when the pieces fit

Joe Girardi’s first tenure as a manager — the 2006 season with the Florida Marlins — was not one in which a prospective employer would find much comfort. He fought with his overbearing owner; he created a tense clubhouse environment; and four of the seven pitchers who made seven or more starts for him suffered through serious arm injuries. Still, he walked away with the Manager of the Year Award, and his skill as a baseball strategist earned much praise.

When the Yankees, then, hired this Joe to replace the outgoing Joe, it wasn’t an easy choice. Yankee great Don Mattingly was also up for the job, and the team had to decide between a fan favorite or the ex-player who was seemingly the smarter baseball mind. At the time, I thought they made the right choice, but Girardi’s first year in pinstripes wasn’t an easy one. The team suffered through numerous injuries, and the skipper wasn’t as forthcoming with information as the media had hoped him to be. When the Yanks finished third for the first time since the early 1990s, Yankee fans wondered if the team had picked the right guy to lead the pack.

Last year, though, it all clicked. With an overhauled pitching staff, a healthy lineup, a great bullpen and a deeper bench, the Yankees captured their 27th World Series Championship, and while we raised our eyebrows at some of Girardi’s pitching and pinch running moves, what he did to lead the team obviously paid off. That happy guy you see at right hoisting the trophy deserved it.

So what then did Joe Girardi do last year? Well, for starters, he employed 106 total different batting lineups, well below average for the American League. He used 97 pinch hitters, the 8th lowest total in the game. His runners attempted 124 stolen bases — tenth highest in the Majors — and were successful 101 times. He called for the sac bunt just 49 times and saw it executed successfully 63 percent of the time.

On the pitching front, Girardi used nine different starting pitchers and 21 relievers, including Nick Swisher. His pitchers averaged 96.8 pitchers per game, 11th overall, and threw just four starts of 120 pitches or higher. He made 461 pitching changes, 15th most in the league, and 304 of those relief appearances were scoreless ones. Girardi also asked his pitchers to issue just 28 free passes, 21st overall.

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

Of course, Girardi has some decisions to make as well this year. He has to decide how to clear up the left field logjam. He has to determine how to get both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain ready to contribute as starting pitchers in 2011. In a way, coming off a World Series win and with the future of the organization approaching something of a crossroads, 2010 may be Girardi’s toughest year as a manager, and he’s a lame duck to boot.

In 2009, Girardi pressed the right buttons and had the right pieces to win. The team is again assembled to be a 2010 AL powerhouse, and Girardi just has to keep his cool about him while making sure the kids are progressing properly. As long as the skipper doesn’t tense up, the team should be just fine with him at the helm, and he will, in all likelihood, be back in 2011.

Brett Gardner’s spray chart before and after his thumb injury

Gardner with a pretty swing...and it came after his return from a fractured thumb. Photo credit: Bill Kostroun/AP

Small injuries can seriously impair a player. Not only does it stick him on the DL, but it can oftentimes linger and affect his play for weeks, months, or even years down the road. We often see this with wrist injuries — in fact, we’re hoping that Nick Johnson has finally fully recovered from his, allowing him to regain some of the power that was absent last year.

Any hand injury presents cause for concern. Just look at Coco Crisp. When the Red Sox traded for him before the 2006 season it looked like he was becoming a solid regular. He improved his batting average and OBP in 2004, and then added power to his game in 2005, finishing with a 117 OPS+. The next spring, however, he broke his finger and hasn’t been nearly the same since. The closest he’s come was in 2008 when he had a 93 OPS+.

Brett Gardner suffered a fractured thumb last summer, causing him to miss 43 days. This came at a bad time, as Gardner was finally heating up after starting the season in a slump. In April he hit .220/.254/.271 in 65 PA and lost his starting job to Melky Cabrera. From May 1 through his injury on July 27 he hit .298/.393/.454 in 166 PA. Upon his return he slipped back towards his April marks, .250/.308/.292 in 53 PA. We’re dealing in small samples here, but I’d still like too examine this a bit further.

Tommy Rancel at DRays Bay used the Texas Leaguers Pitch f/x tool to display B.J. Upton’s spray charts as he dealt with a shoulder injury. It’s a neat idea, seeing a player’s hit breakdown pre- and post-injury. Often we deal in small samples, but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine it. It means, instead, that it offers little predictive value. There are just so many random factors at play that can mess with a sample of this size.

Here’s Gardner’s spray chart from when he started heating up, May 1, through his injury on July 25:

To the shallow outfield he has a pretty even distribution. Clearly his power works to straightaway right and to the gap in right-center. He’ll never hit for power the opposite way, though that’s not of much concern for a player like Gardner. Other than the power hits, though, I think this is as even as you’re going to see. Even the outs are fairly even.

(See that green dot almost sitting on the left field line? Remember that one? Yeah, I do.)

Now for his spray chart after the injury:

Well, well. There seems to be an abundance of green in left field. Gardner hit the ball the other way far more frequently after his return. Again, this is in short sample. He saw only 224 pitches in that time, so it’s understandable that we might see an aberration. Maybe his thumb injury didn’t have anything to do with his lack of balls pulled to the outfield in September. Maybe he was seeing more pitches on the outside half. In fact, as you can see in the pitches he swung at and the pitches he took, that might be the case.

Even in 2008, during Gardner’s short stint in New York, he hit the ball to all fields. Here’s his spray chart for that year:

Did Gardner’s thumb injury affect his swing? As I said at the top of the post, and then again a few paragraphs above, it’s tough to say that with any certainty, given the small samples we’re dealing with. Something did change in September, though. Gardner went from spraying the ball evenly in the outfield to hitting balls up the middle and slapping them the other way. There might be a pitch bias on display, which makes me hesitant to declare the problem his thumb. There’s certainly a connection, so I wonder if Gardner, fully recovered, can return to the form he displayed from May through July.

Today is no Joba, no Hughes day

The fifth starter race has been an absolute drain in Yankeeland this past week, culminating yesterday when Phil Hughes was officially given the job. We all need a break from this, so we’re going to declare today No Joba, No Hughes Day. No talking about those two and their situation at all. There will be plenty of fresh content today, scroll down to see the latest post, just keep to conversations on topic. Thanks.

Looking at the Yanks’ projected defense

GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees’ brass have been preaching the mantra of “get younger and more athletic” for years now, and they have done so in each of the last two offseasons. They effectively replaced the trio of Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon (combined 2010 age: 111) with Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson (combined 2010 age: 88) while handing the 26-year-old Brett Gardner something close to a full-time job this year.

The improvement made with this transition is noticeable in more ways than one. First of all, it’s easier on the bottom line, even with Tex’s massive deal. Swisher and Granderson will combine to make $750,000 less this year than what the Yankees paid Damon by himself last year. Secondly, the younger players are less susceptible to the daily aches and pains associated with a 162 game season, and generally recover quicker than players on the wrong side of 35. Durability is a big part of it. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on the third way the young players are an improvement over the old dudes, and that’s defensively.

Last year, the Yankees posted a team UZR of -18.5, 18th best in the game (or more accurately, 12th worst). Sadly, that was a massive improvement from their -44.5 UZR in 2008, which was third worst in all the land. With Damon, and to a lesser extent the perpetually average Melky Cabrera elsewhere this year, the Yankees stand to improve some more on the defensive side of the ball.

Using Jeff Zimmerman’s UZR projections, we can get an idea of how the Yanks’ projected starters for the 2010 season should do with the leather. Remember, these are just projections based on a weighted regression of the last four year’s worth of data, and are in no way predictions. They’re just a fancy estimated guesses, really. The table, obviously, is on the left.

Because we’re looking at the total defensive production from the individual positions in 2009 and comparing it to just the projected starters for the upcoming season, we’re really comparing apples to … slices of apples.  More accurate than oranges, but not whole apples. Guys like Ramiro Pena, Randy Winn, (ugh) Marcus Thames, and who knows who else will make their mark throughout the season, for better or for worse. For us though, this is fine.

The real improvement comes in the outfield, which is good because new fourth starter Javy Vazquez and new fifth starter Phil Hughes are fly ball pitchers, as are bullpen mainstays David Robertson, Damaso Marte, and Al Aceves. Despite his struggles down the stretch last year, Granderson has been an above average defensive centerfielder his entire career, which is what the UZR projections see him being in 2010. Sliding Gardner over to left instantly improves the position, even if he undershoots his projection by a few runs. Nick Swisher will probably be the same Nick Swisher in right, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s still damn effective.

As for the infield, well that crew remains unchanged from last year except for one thing: they’re all a year older. Zimmerman’s projections are age adjusted, which is why they see 36-year-old Derek Jeter‘s defense dropping significantly despite the improvement he’s made in recent seasons. Shortstops that age who don’t decline with the glove are few and far between. Ditto 35-year-old third basemen. I expect Jeter and A-Rod to be collectively below average next year, though I’m hopeful it’ll just be slightly below rather than oh-my-goodness-this-is-Sarah-Jessica-Parker-ugly defense.

Cano and Tex are firmly in the primes of their career, and even though their UZR doesn’t always jive with what our eyes tell us, I think we can all agree they’re no worse than league average as a tandem. The Yankees will be fine on the right side of the infield both offensively and defensively as long as no one gets hurt.

The Yankees have come a long way since 2005, when they trotted out what was arguably the worst defense in baseball history. They’ve managed to do so while importing some long-term pieces on affordable contracts that are more than total zeroes with the bat. They figure to be even better in 2010, which can only help the pitching staff that posted the second best xFIP (4.23) in the American League last season.

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP

Cashman: Joba a ‘starter in the bullpen’

Is Joba Chamberlain a reliever for good? We’ve heard many opine that since the Yankees announced that Phil Hughes will be the fifth starter this season. The GM doesn’t believe it, though. As Newsday’s Anthony Rieber reports (subscription required), Cashman still believes Chamberlain is a starter. “He’s a starter in the bullpen. He can do both. He’s a starter who was just beaten out in the competition. That’s what we honestly believe, but we only had one spot.” That sounds about right. It does give me some faith that, should something happen to a current member of the rotation, Joba could, and should, be first in line to get a crack.

Open Thread: Nick Swisher FTW

With the Opening Night match-up between the Yankees and the Red Sox fast approaching, ESPN has started to roll out its on-air promotions. The first way to hit the World Wide Leader is a doozy, and Nick Swisher, obviously, steals the show.

The set-up: Clay Buchholz and actor Adam Scott are singing Sweet Caroline when the chorus comes up. They toss it over to Swisher who, well, you’ll see. He gives it right back to them as only Nick Swisher could do. Afterward, Buchholz steals Swisher’s laptop and runs away. Only part of this paragraph is true.

It might not as classic as the Old Spice commercial that always makes me laugh, but it’s a good one. Who can complain when the Yankees come out on top anyway?

Anyway, this is, as the title may give away, your open thread for the evening. The Devils host the Rangers tonight while the Islanders take on the Flames. The Knicks and Nets are both mercifully off tonight, and some of my favorites on NBC — Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock — are all new tonight. In the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent to each other.