RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:20pm ET today. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

What to do with Marcus Thames

Let’s cut right to chase here: Marcus Thames has been absolutely dreadful in Spring Training so far. He’s reached base in just four of his 33 plate appearances, and all three of his hits are singles. Thirteen of those plate appearances, or nearly 40%, have ended with strike three. That’s not what the Yankees expected when they offered him a chance to win a job on their bench back in February. We talk about how insignificant Spring Training stats are all the time, and generally they are, but there are some instances in which they do have some meaning. One of those instances is when you have a guy like Thames trying to win a job.

Unfortunately the Yankees have already jettisoned Thames’ primary competition from camp, shipping Jamie Hoffmann back to Dodgers. Hoffmann’s spring performance wasn’t anything to write home about either (3-for-23, three walks, one strikeout), but unlike Thames he’s able to contribute something beyond offense. Baseball America rated him as the best defensive outfielder in the organization before he was returned, and he’s capable of double digit steals. Thames is a proven commodity on both defense and on the bases, posting a -12.2 UZR/150 in over 1,760 innings in leftfield, and he’s stolen a grand total of three bases in over 500 big league games. If he’s not hitting, he has no value. It’s that simple.

With Hoffmann gone and almost all of the other non-roster invitees shipped out, it leads us to believe that Thames has all but locked up a spot on the 25-man roster. He’s a Proven Veteran™ after all, and over the last three years he’s hit .263-.326-.541 with a studly .370 wOBA against lefthanders. That’s going to his primary job, to come off the bench and pinch hit against the lefty late in the game or occasionally start against one in lieu of Brett Gardner. The track record is certainly there, but Thames isn’t young (turned 33 earlier this month), and over the last four years he’s become increasingly more susceptible to fastballs (0.72 runs above avg against fastballs per 100 thrown in ’06, 0.40 in ’07, -0.07 in ’08, and -0.24 in ’09). If that’s the not the sign of a guy losing some bat speed, then I don’t know what is.

At this point, the only other realistic in-house option is Kevin Russo, who was just shipped to minor league camp. He had himself a very nice camp (8-for-25, three doubles) and offers the ability to play all over the infield and fill in at the outfield corners if need be. Russo will never offer the power Thames has, even with the latter in his decline phase, but he’s got better plate discipline and is more contact oriented. It’s an imperfect solution to an imperfect situation.

Despite his struggles, it’s all up guaranteed that Thames will break camp with the Yankees as their designated lefty masher. He can opt out of his contract if he doesn’t make the team, so there’s no option of stashing in the minors and hoping he finds his stroke. Joe Girardi rolled out the excuse that he hasn’t face many lefties this spring, but they’re supposed to this weekend so we can see how that goes. Scheduled to face southpaws Jon Lester and David Price within the first four games of the season, the Yanks are going to need Thames to start hitting and soon. Otherwise they’re better off taking 0-fers from Brett Gardner while reaping the rewards of his defense as they prowl the waiver wire and trade market for a suitable fill in.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP

Jeter wants to ‘call the shots’

Derek Jeter would like to own a baseball team, he told the Associated Press yesterday. In an interview that probed Derek’s post-retirement plans, Fred Goodall of the AP talked ownership with the Yankee Captain, and Jeter made it clear that he wants a real piece of the action a la Michael Jordan and not just a token share of a team. “The only interest I have in ownership is to be able to call the shots. I’ve said that time and time again,” Jeter said.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard talk about Derek’s interest in team ownership. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I talked about how Jeter could become a part-owner of the Yankees. Suddenly, that zany idea doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. Whether Jeter would be a good savvy owner obviously remains to be seen, but he has spent his career around some pretty powerful sports business figures.

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.