Open Thread: February 15th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Here’s a quick roundup of what went down in Spring Training today…

  • A.J. Burnett threw an early-morning bullpen session, throwing something like 30 fastballs. “It’s all about having a good time and putting last year away,” he said afterward. “I wasn’t really a factor and I’m here to be a factor.” Burnett also shot down the idea that Dave Eiland’s mid-season absence contributed to his struggles, saying “I’ve been haywire before I even knew Dave.” (Erik Boland & Pete Caldera)
  • Chad Jennings has the list of every pitcher that threw today, highlighted by CC Sabathia throwing to birthday boy (28) Russell Martin. Fifth starter candidates Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Sergio Mitre all got some throwing in as well.
  • Jorge Posada did not work out with the catchers today, a precaution after offseason knee surgery. He won’t catch any bullpen sessions this week, though he was helping Tony Pena on the coaching side of things. (Mark Feinsand & Joel Sherman)
  • Posada also put his GM hat back on, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if Andy Pettitte came back to pitch mid-season. He spoke about his future beyond 2011 for the first time as well. “After this year, it would be real tough to look somewhere else. If I want to play, I would like to stay here.” (Caldera & Tyler Kepner)
  • And finally, Mariano Rivera is still not in camp, though Brian Cashman said he’s expected “sometime today.” One of his kids has the flu, it’s nothing serious. Hector Noesi is having some visa issues and will also be late. (Feinsand, Feinsand & Bryan Hoch)

Here’s your open thread for the night. The Islanders are the only local team in action, so I guess you’re on your own tonight. Talk about whatever, go nuts.

Fantasy Baseball Update: If you’re commissioner of one of the many fantasy leagues from last year, please renew the league if you haven’t already. Also send me your standings from last so we can attempt to work out this relegation stuff, email addy’s in the sidebar.

Food For Thought: Brett Gardner

That up there comes from Baseball Analytics, and shows how often Brett Gardner swung at a pitch by location. It was no better than 50-50 that he would swing at a pitch right down the middle last year, but it was basically a one-in-five chance that he’d swing at something on the corners or at the knees. They also have graphs for 2008 and 2009, which allows you to see his plate discipline progression. Here’s a gif of the three, maybe that’s easier to compare. It’s pretty obvious that he’s gotten better and better at laying off stuff out of the zone, always a plus, but Gardner can be pretty infuriating when he lets a something hittable go by in a hitter’s count.

Food For Thought: BA’s Top 100 Prospects Lists

Scott McKinney at Royals Review posted a comprehensive study of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists from 1990 through 2003, attempting to find some patterns in prospect success. The above graph comes from his post and shows the average annual WAR accumulated by a player during his first six big league seasons (his time under team control) versus his rank in the various top 100 lists. As you can see, it’s rather sharp drop off after the top five or six prospects, and the difference between a prospect ranked in the middle of list and the guy ranked 100th really isn’t all that big, about a quarter of a win per season.

This is pertinent to Yankees fans because when BA’s 2011 top 100 list comes out next Wednesday, Jesus Montero figures to rank among the five best prospects in the game. McKinney found that 52.5% of the top 20 prospects go on to become successful big leaguers (defined as 2.0 WAR per season), an excellent success rate when you consider that approximately 70% of all top 100 prospects flame out. Furthermore, position players ranked in the top ten turn into a successful big leaguer a whopping 62.7% of the time, and a “superior player” (2.5 WAR or more) a little more than 35% of the time. Based on history, there’s better than a 50-50 chance that Montero will turn into a useful player, and better than a one-in-three chance that he develops into no worse than above-average player. I like those odds.

McKinney breaks the data down a million different ways, so I highly recommend clicking through and giving his post a read. It turns out that of the 34 Yankees farmhands to appear in BA’s top 100 lists through the years, 73.5% end up busts. That sounds like a lot, but it’s exactly middle of the pack. The Indians lead the way with a 42.4% success rate and the Giants trail everyone at 13%. Again, make sure you check it out. That’s some great stuff right there.

The RAB Radio Show: February 15, 2011

The story of the day is A.J. Burnett, so we start off with a conversation about his 2010 season and what can change in 2011. There are plenty of baffling aspects of Burnett.

Then we’re onto some other baseball matters. The Pirates come up for a bit, but we spend most of the non-Yanks time talking about Albert Pujols. The premise is Ken Rosenthal’s article, in which he proposes the Yanks trade Mark Teixeira for Pujols. We don’t so much talk about that as we talk about the Cardinals’ dealings with their star and why they have to re-sign him.

(And yeah, we do spend a few minutes on the Teixeira issue.)

Podcast run time 35:27

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  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Awww Schlit: Brian’s gone

Via Todd Zolecki, the Phillies have claimed reliever Brian Schlitter off waivers from the Yankees, who designated him for assignment yesterday to make room on the 40-roster for Andruw Jones. Schlitter, who was originally claimed off waivers from the Cubs last month, was actually in camp this morning and was scheduled to throw a bullpen session at some point today. Not sure if that happened, but Phillies camp isn’t far away from Tampa at all.

So I guess Schlitter is this year’s Shane Lindsay. Barely had time to get to know the guy.

Burnett’s importance to the 2011 Yankees

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The storyline has shifted to a new pitcher. Yesterday it was CC Sabathia and the opt-out in his contract. Today reported moved to A.J. Burnett. The subject matter, as it has all winter, centered on his ability to put 2010 behind him. His ability to do so could determine the Yankees’ fate in 2011.

Simply improving on 2010 will not be enough. Burnett finished the season with a 5.26 ERA in 186.2 innings, so a marginal improvement won’t do much good. What the Yankees need is a repeat of 2009, when Burnett struck out nearly a batter per inning and finished with a 4.04 ERA. That might not seem like $16.5 million’s worth, but it should be enough to solidify the top end of the pitching staff.

What are the chances that Burnett improves significantly upon his 2010? At this point we can do one of three things: 1) we can guess, 2) we can look at projection systems, or 3) we can forget about it, say he sucks, and pack it in for the season. Since No. 3 is an option only for people who don’t read RAB, and since No. 2 is more productive than No. 1, let’s take a look at Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections.

Even though Burnett turns 34 this season, PECOTA does see a distinct improvement in 2011. A big factor in that is his strikeout rate, which tumbled in 2010. PECOTA forecasts Burnett to strike out 8.1 batters per nine innings, which is over a batter more than his 2010 rate. It also lines up almost perfectly with his career rate of 8.23 per nine. That, combined with steady walk and home run rates, figures to produce a 4.56 ERA, or .7 runs per nine innings better than last season. In terms of BP’s WARP, that’s 2.6 wins, which easily trumps the zero wins he produced by the same standard in 2010.

While this type of improvement seems reasonable, the Yankees will probably need a bit more. BP recently published its AL East forecasted standings (unfortunately, subscriber-only). The takeaway is that the Yankees are projected to finish one game back of the Red Sox. While each player on the team contributes in some way to that discrepancy, perhaps no Yankees player can improve on his projection in the manner Burnett can. If he drops that extra half-run and get his ERA around four, that should amount to one extra win.* There’s the difference right there.

*This is based on other pitchers of around 3.6 wins. The easiest comparison is Josh Beckett, who is forecasted for a 3.95 ERA in 187 innings, or a 3.6 WARP.

When the Yankees signed Burnett to that five-year, $82.5 million contract in the winter of 2008, they saw him as their No. 2 starter. While he served that function in 2009, he was far from it in 2010. In 2011 he’ll have to return to form if the Yankees are going to keep pace. They might have a thin staff now, but if Burnett turns back into the guys the Yankees signed, they can hold on with a strong top of the rotation and a powerful offense. And Burnett knows exactly what is expected of him: “I came here to win. I came here to pitch…And I’m here to be a factor.”

Stuff to watch in Spring Training

Waiting for today's workout. (Photo Credit: Yankees PR Dept.)

Spring Training is a bit of tease for baseball fans. Yeah, it’s great to watch and follow real live baseball, but the games don’t mean anything and the result certainly don’t matter at all. It can be hard to get a grasp on who’s really ahead in position battles and who’s simply working to improve an aspect of their game, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Aside from the well-documented competitions for the fifth starter’s spot, the last bullpen, the last bench spot, etc., here’s a few things to keep your eye on throughout camp…

A.J. Burnett‘s Curveball

We’re all well aware that A.J.’s curveball deserted him last season, which is why his strikeout (6.99 K/9) and swing-and-miss (7.29%) rates plummeted to their lowest points in a decade. Burnett has waited until later in Spring Training to start throwing his curveball over the last few seasons, so I’m curious to see if he’ll break the routine and start toying with the pitch a little earlier than usual to avoid a repeat of 2010’s debacle.

Brett Gardner‘s Approach

Gardner was baseball’s best count-worker last season, though after taking that Clayton Kershaw pitch off his right wrist in June, he was noticeably passive down the stretch, almost hoping for a walk rather than looking for something to drive. He had offseason surgery to clean out some inflammation and get the wrist back to 100%, so let’s see if he start being a little more aggressive and swings at stuff in the zone rather than letting hittable pitches go by just for the sake of seeing pitches.

Curtis Granderson‘s Hacks

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Much has been made of Grandy’s mid-August turn around, but the fact remains that his torrid hitting lasted all of 192 plate appearances (230 if we count the postseason, which we should). Results don’t matter, but just pay attention to the kind of contact he’s making in March. Is he producing line drives and fly balls, or rolling over on pitches and hitting weak pop-ups?

Russell Martin‘s Mobility

The new starting catcher saw his 2010 season end in August after an awkward step on home plate resulted in a hairline fracture in his hip. His labrum was not damaged and he didn’t need surgery, but it’s still a very serious injury. Furthermore, Martin had surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in one of his knees back in December, and as recently as last week we heard that he still wasn’t 100%. Chances are he’ll take it easy during the first week or two (or three) of camp at the team’s behest, but once we get into the middle of March, we should see him moving around like a normal catcher.

Derek Jeter‘s Grounders

The Cap’n has always been a ground ball hitter, but last season he took it to the extreme. His 65.7% grounder rate was not just the highest in baseball in 2010, it was the highest by a non-Luis Castillo batter since the data started being recorded in 2002. Jeter had been at 57.7% grounders from 2006 through 2009, which is ideally where he’d be going forward. If he’s still (weakly) beating the ball into the ground close to seven times out of every ten balls in play late in camp, well that’s not a good sign.

What the deuce are you staring at? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Jesus Montero‘s Awesomeness

It’s not often that we get a chance to see our favorite prospects in the action, so Spring Training is a gold mine for minor league watchers. Sure, Montero will almost certainly be up at some point this season, but we have to wait until the club deems him ready. He’ll receive mostly regular playing time in March though, the best chance we have to see him before he heads to Scranton in a few weeks. A .444/.500/1.125 career hitter in Spring Training (4-for-9 with two doubles and a homer, that being a grand slam), Montero will make the last four innings of every game worth tuning into.

* * *

Again, Spring Training isn’t the best time to evaluate players, especially based on results, but there are definitely some things worth paying attention. Everything listed above is just the tip of the iceberg, we also need to pay attention to CC Sabathia‘s weight loss, Joba Chamberlain‘s weight gain, Phil Hughes‘ almighty changeup, Jorge Posada‘s adjustment to being a full-time designated hitter, Mark Teixeira‘s rebound from numerous nagging late-season injuries (broken toe, bruised thumb, popped hammy), and a ton more.