The all or nothing Mark Teixeira

(Charles Krupa/AP)

For the past two years Mark Teixeira has been one of the most frustrating players on the Yankees. In 2009, after signing for eight years and $180 million, Teixeira proved his worth, hitting .292/.383/.565 (.402 wOBA) and powering the league’s best offense. But since then his production has dropped to more human levels. In 2010, amid nagging injuries, he slumped to .256/.365/.481 (.367 wOBA). This year he’s at .248/.346/.512 (.370 wOBA). No one has welcomed this recent development.

That isn’t to say that Teixeira has played poorly. In fact, he has been one of the most productive Yankees in the last two years. In that time he has created 50.6 runs above average, which falls behind only Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. He also has a 130 wRC+, which also falls behind only those two. In terms of his place in the league, he has created the 17th most runs in the last two years, and has the 22nd highest wRC+. To say he’s been bad is a gross misstatement. He has been, despite his slumps, a top 20 player.

The disappointment stems not only from his hefty contract, but also from his drop-off after 2008 and 2009. In those two seasons he was second in the league with 89 runs above average and seventh with a 149 wRC+. He has gone from being a superstar to being a very good hitter. It’s probably the toughest downgrade in sports. There’s something special about a superstar. We think of them as different from their peers, that extra two percent better. Very good players help teams win ballgames and championships, but it’s hard to appreciate a very good player when he was so recently a superstar. (And is getting paid like a superstar.)

This season Teixeira has produced his numbers mostly through power. His 34 homers ranks third in the majors and his .263 ISO ranks fifth (third in the AL). But that’s really the only way he’s helped out. His .248 batting average is a career low, owing mostly to a .231 BABIP that ranks fourth lowest in the league. His walk rate has taken a slight hit, too, dropping to 2009 levels despite the 40-points-lower batting average. Again, that has translated into a productive season, as demonstrated above. But it’s not a superstar season.

One aspect adding to the frustration over Teixeira is that he’s been all or nothing this year. Again, he’s smacked 34 homers, and he’s done that in 32 games. In those games his, unsurprisingly, killing the ball, hitting .369/.440/1.230 in 141 PA. That amounts to about a quarter of his total PA and games played. The problem comes in the other three quarters of his games and PA. In those, 93 and 414, he has hit .207/.314/.263. When he’s not hitting a homer, Teixeira isn’t doing much of anything else.

That there’s a large gap in Teixeira’s numbers when homering and when not homering comes as little surprise. When he hits a home run he’s obviously being more productive, so therefore he’ll produce much better numbers when he’s performing the single most valuable act in baseball. The issue with Teixeira is the expanse of the divide.

Take Curtis Granderson as a counterexample. He has homered 35 times in 33 different games, and has hit .403/.473/1.256 in those games. In the games he did not homer, however, he remains decently productive: .231/.340/.335. Those aren’t great numbers by any stretch, but with the OBP, in addition to the 17 doubles and 9 triples, makes Curtis a somewhat productive player when he’s not hitting a homer. That’s just not the case for Teixeira.

The most frustrating aspect of the Tex divide is that there’s not much the Yankees can do about it. They could drop him in the order if they wanted, but that would only diminish the value they get from the 25 percent of games in which he does hit a homer. Dropping him in the order also only makes room for a player who creates fewer runs than Teixeira. Sure, there are plenty of benefits to having Gardner atop the lineup, but it’s not as though the Yankees are holding back a speedy guy with a .380 OBP.

If the biggest issue with Teixeira this season is frustration, that’s probably a good thing. Frustration is merely an emotion, something we feel when we see something that falls below our expectations. Teixeira has surely done that. For the second straight year he’s dipped below the superstar level of production he established from 2008 to 2009. Despite that, he’s still put together two generally productive seasons, and has been one of the Yankees’ two or three best hitters in that span. It is something of a problem that he’s essentially useless in 75 percent of his games. But you never know when one of the 25 percent is coming. And when it does, it’s a big boost to the Yankees lineup.

Comeback falls just short as A’s tip Yanks

Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.

As I sat in Section 419 tonight and watched Coco Crisp spring back to the wall in deep left center field, I knew the A’s outfielder had a beat on the ball Nick Swisher had just blasted into the night. The only factor would be physics. Had Swisher hit the ball hard enough at the right angle so that it would just eke past the fence to give the Yanks a walk-off Grand Slam or would a ninth inning rally falter?

Crisp had his back against the wall as the ball settled into his glove. Frank Sinatra started blaring over the PA system as the remaining fans shuffled dejectedly away. The walkoff magic was not to be tonight as the A’s won 6-5. Instead, Joe Girardi‘s decisions are what doomed the Yankees, and now we’ll just have to hope that the O’Neill Theory will be in effect tomorrow.

Decision #1: Sticking with Big Bart

In the American League, a manager’s job once the game begins can be a limited one. Without the potential for a double switch, an AL manager must make some pitching changes, decide whether or not to send a runner and think about deploying the arsenal of hit and run or bunts that make up in-game strategies. Tonight, unfortunately, nothing Joe Girardi decided to do helped the Yanks win the game.

Girardi’s first decision concerned Bartolo Colon. After six innings, Colon had been reasonably effective. He wasn’t using his two-seamer, a decision he made based on the home runs Kansas City hit last week. Instead, he went to his slider, and two fat pitches were deposited over the right field wall. Through six, he had thrown over 90 pitches and had allowed three runs on six hits. That should have been fine, but with the Yanks struggling to score, Girardi pushed his pitcher for another inning.

In the seventh, facing the bottom of the lineup, Colon couldn’t get through it. After a strike out, Cliff Pennington singled and Kurt Suzuki doubled. With lefty Eric Sogard due up, Girardi went to Logan, and Bob Melvin went to right-handed Scott Sizmore. Generally, this year, Logan has been tough on righties, but Sizemore fought off a pitch that landed fair for a two-run double. It would prove costly.

I have no issue with the move to go to Logan, but I wonder about the decision to put Bart back on the mound. With his six innings tonight, Colon has now reached 130 for the first time since 2005, and the Yanks are concerned that he might be tiring. Since returning from his hamstring injury, he is 3-5 with a 4.61 ERA in just over 52 innings. He has also allowed six home runs over his last 22 innings. Before tonight, he was effective but not efficient. Now, he’s had back-to-back starts where he’s been neither effective nor efficient, and I’d love to see him get some extra rest. That, however, means more of A.J. Burnett.

Decision #2: Derek’s Big Bunt

I have spent far too much time wringing my hands over the Yanks’ bunting tendencies under Joe Girardi. An NL player who cut his teeth managing an NL team, Girardi loves to give up outs at inopportune moments. The Yankees, who entered the game leading the majors in runs scored, are seventh in the AL in sac bunts while the Red Sox, who started tonight with 670 runs, are last in the AL in bunts. The value of out, especially when only three remain, cannot be overstated.

To start the ninth, Jorge Posada homered, Russell Martin doubled and Brett Gardner reached on an error. Everyone in the stadium knew what was about to happen, and there was nothing we could to stop. Facing a pitcher who couldn’t locate his pitches and with a batter up who was 23 for his 46, Joe Girardi called for a bunt. As Steven Goldman wrote, he played for one run when he needed two, and it cost the Yanks.

When Derek Jeter made that pivotal first out of the ninth, the Yanks’ win expectancy dipped from 35 to 31. Even with two runners in scoring position, the A’s needed just a pair of outs. Curtis Granderson walked to load the bases, but Mark Teixeira popped out. Robinson Cano, showing uncharacteristic 3-2 patience, drew an RBI walk, and Nick Swisher missed that walkoff grand slam by a hair. The bunt loomed large.

After the game, Joe Girardi said calling for the bunt “wasn’t a tough decision” with the team’s big bats up next. But Jeter has been the club’s hottest hitter for weeks, and while Girardi may have been concerned over the double play, Derek hasn’t hit into many of those lately. Instead of rolling the dice on a positive outcome, Girardi went with the sure thing, and that sure thing cost the Yanks. As one of Twitter’s most vocal critics of bunting said, “That bunt guaranteed an out. That’s about it.” When outs are a scarce commodity, don’t just hand them away.

Goat: Mark Teixeira

Before we wrap up for the night, let us ponder Mark Teixeira’s evening. On a night during which the Yanks got all of one hit out of 14 chances with runners in scoring position, the Yanks’ cleanup hitter went 0 for 5 and stranded eight runners. After Granderson walked in the ninth, he took one pitch before fouling out to third. He didn’t make solid contact or get a good swing on the pitch, and that second out forced the Yanks to need a hit that never came.

Tonight, I just had to tip my cap to Brandon Allen and hope the Yanks’ decisions turn out better tomorrow. With the Yanks’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot at 27, this was a far tougher game to stomach than it shows in the standings.

Dellin dealin’ bases on balls

The bad news: Mark Prior was scratched from his Gulf Coast League start with “shoulder discomfort. I had hopes that the Yanks would see him in September, but I think that dream is hanging on by a thread. The good news: Both Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte may throw in a GCL game on Thursday, but the odds of their returns this year are slim. On another note, thanks to RAB commenter mbonzo for help with Down on the Farm tonight. He did the vast majority of the heavy lifting.

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 win in 12. I’m glad one team completed a comeback. This was a walkoff by Brandon Laird.)
Jesus Montero, C: 0 for 6, 2 K – Ouch
Brandon Laird, 3B: 3 for 6, 1 2B, 2 RBI
Mike Lamb, DH: 4 for 6, 2 R, 1 RBI
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 2 for 5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 2 K
Dellin Betances, P: 3 IP, 1 H, 2 ER, 9 BB, 4 K – Ouch. Through the first 52 pitches, Rochester had put just one in play. It was an ugly, ugly evening as he threw just 41 of 84 pitches for strikes.
Pants Lendleton, P: 3 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K
Scott Proctor, P: 1 IP, 1 BB, 2 K
Logan Kensing, LHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 2 K
Kevin Whelan, P: 2 IP, 2 H, 2 K

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Game 126: No A-Rod Again

(AP Photo)

One game after he returned to the lineup, Alex Rodriguez is again out of it. He suffered a jammed thumb while making a play on Sunday. After cutting short his BP session he went for an x-ray. It doesn’t sound like anything serious.

That means the lineup resembles the ones we’ve seen for the past month or so. It’s also Bartday, which we hope moves the Bartolo Colon O Meter clockwise.

Lineup

1. Brett Gardner, LF
2. Derek Jeter, SS
3. Curtis Granderson, CF
4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
5. Robinson Cano, 2B
6. Nick Swisher, RF
7. Eric Chavez, 3B
8. Jorge Posada, DH
9. Russell Martin, C

And on the mound, number forty, Bartolo Colon.

Brackman goes back to the basics

It’s been a disappointing season for 2007 first round pick Andrew Brackman to say the least, and he hit rock bottom in a nine walk, ten out start on July 29th. As Tim Bontemps writes, that outing caused Brackman to reevaluate things and get back to worked for him before. “You’re looking for help, and I guess the only person who can help you is yourself,” said Brackman, who decided to go back to his old college delivery. “It’s just feeling comfortable. I guess I just wasn’t comfortable with my mechanics at the beginning of the season, and now I am.”

The biggest difference between his current (college) motion and his old delivery from earlier in the season is the placement of his hands. Before they were right around his belt when he started his motion, now they’re up higher around his chest. “Even in my bullpen sessions, my command has been 100 times better,” added Brackman. “Even just tossing, I can hit the man in the chest. It’s so difficult when you’re out there and you’re throwing it over the guy’s head and into the stands when you’re playing catch.  It just feels natural now. I’m actually throwing the ball.” You can see the old delivery here, but unfortunately the MLB.com draft video of his college days appears to have been taken down. The (very) early returns are promising, but we’ve got a long, long way to go before seeing if any real improvement has been made.

Baseball, Barbecue, Beer and Burgers: A Travelogue

Kauffman Stadium awaits a crowd and a game. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

At around this time last week, my flight to Kansas City was just about to touch down, and I had one thing in mind: Barbecue. I had been to Arthur Bryant’s once before ten years ago, and I wanted lunch. After picking up my car, I drove down into KC from the airport where I sampled some burnt ends and brisket, enjoyed a few ribs and a scoop of pulled pork. It was as good as I remembered, and it wouldn’t even be the best barbecue of my trip.

After taking the bar in late July and spending the previous summer months studying for it, I wanted to spend some time in August on the road. I knew the Yanks too were heading west this month, and so I followed them. I caught the last two games in Kansas City before settling in for a long weekend in Minneapolis. Along the way, I ate well, I drank well and I enjoyed a successful 4-2 stint with the Yanks during which I encountered many knowledgeable, passionate and friendly baseball fans.

The Kansas City leg of a trip was a short one. After my lunch at Arthur Bryant’s, I stopped by my hotel, across the street from Kauffman Stadium, and decamped for the ballpark. The K is a lovely stadium. It opened in 1973, and it’s now one of the game’s oldest ballparks. You wouldn’t know it though from the trip. It’s a small, intimate setting for a baseball game. The upper deck tapers off at the end, and the seating bowl holds just over 37,000. For the mid-week series against the Yanks, the last-place Royals drew just over 22,000 to each of the two games I saw.

In Kansas City, I wasn’t the lone Yankee fan there. My hotel was swarming with families decked out in Yankee gear. Not many had traveled from New York, but others had taken the trip from near and far. Some came in from Nebraska and Oklahoma, fans of the Yankees since the Mick roamed center field. Others were up from Arkansas to see their favorite team play. Throughout the games, chants of “Let’s go, Yanks” drowned out those KC natives trying to pull for the Royals.

When the Royals beat the Yankees on a disputed home run call last Wednesday, the crowd went crazy. We might mock these fans as boosters of a last-place club, but they drew some baseball joy from seeing the Royals beat the Yankees. Although some fans had the typical “Yankees suck” shirts, those I spoke with were resigned to rooting for a losing team, and when David conquered the $200 million Goliath, they found a minute of happiness amidst yet another lost season.

In KC, I found a city that respects its baseball history. The recently renovated Kauffman Stadium has a new Hall of Fame-curated Royals-specific museum with tributes to the great Royals clubs from the 1980s, images of David Cone and Bret Saberhagen and a monument to George Brett in baseballs. They want to be good again, and maybe soon, the Royals, with a stocked farm system, will be.

The best lunch you will ever eat at a gas station. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Outside of baseball, I ate my way through the city. Thanks to a tip from Mark Feinsand, I left the Missouri part of town and ventured to a gas station in Kansas where I found the best barbecue I’ve had. Oklahoma Joe’s, not a quite a secret to those who know about it, operates in the second half of a gas station convenience store, and it was packed with Yankee fans. I downed succulent half rack of ribs, some pulled pork and a bit of cole slaw. I wanted seconds. After the barbecue, I toured Boulevard Brewery, Kansas City’s expanding and delicious microbrewery. The trip was worth it for the food alone.

Following my 36 hours of beer, baseball and barbecue in Kansas City, I flew north for a four-game stay in Minneapolis and switched out the barbecue for some burgers. The specialty of Minneapolis are Jucy Lucy’s or Juicy Lucy’s depending upon which restaurant you frequent. These are burger patties with the cheese inside of them. They are rich, messy and delicious. My first stop was a high-end joint, the Blue Door Pub in St. Paul, but over the weekend, I also dropped in on Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. With some Summit or Surly to accompany the food, I ate well.

But the focus was again on baseball. I saw four games on Target Field over the weekend, and it is an electric baseball atmosphere. The Twins and Populous have constructed a temple to baseball in Minnesota. From the gates numbered for Minnesota’s retired uniforms to the local materials used in construction, this ballpark oozes Minnesota history. (You can, however, skip the infamous pork chop-on-a-stick.) For one game, I sat atop the overhang in right field, and for the others, I sat with views of the Downtown Minneapolis skyline. It is outdoor baseball away from the confines of the Metrodome.

Target Field at night. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Unlike in Kansas City, Twins fans packed the house, and Yankee fans had to find a fit. These days, Twins fans love their team. Everyone in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area had on a Twins hat, a t-shirt, a jersey, and when I showed up in my Yankee shirt, they would playfully tease me. And it was a playful teasing for everyone I met in Minnesota was as friendly as New Yorkers think they would be. It’s midwest hospitality at its finest.

While Royals fans cheer for a bad team, the Twins this year have been bitten by the injury bug, and their fans have grown accustomed to Yankee dominance. The Yanks have won all but four games they’ve played against the Twins since the start of 2009, and when you consider that the Twins have made the playoffs twice since then, it’s a rather astounding fact. So the Target Field faithful went into the weekend expecting loses, and outside of A.J.’s blow-up, the Yanks delivered.

By the time I returned home yesterday, I was full. I had stopped at burger and barbecue joints around the midwest. I had eaten pancakes at Al’s Breakfast and eggs at Hell’s Kitchen. I had seen two barbecue places, a brewery, six Yankee games and an irate Joe Girardi chew out Jack Curry. It’s a trip well worth planning for any baseball fan with a few days or a weekend to spare, and although I don’t need to eat much for a little while, I’m off to Yankee Stadium again tonight. After all, I can never have enough baseball.

Yankees outfielders adding value with their arms

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Just how good is the Yankees outfield defense? The eye test paints a pretty picture, and the numbers provide a similar perspective. This morning Stephen cited a Dan Barbarisi post that further examines the defensive numbers for the Yankees’ outfield, and the returns are predictably good. As a unit the Yankees outfielders have a UZR of 20.1, or 8.7 per 150, which ranks third in all of baseball. Only Arizona and Boston lead them. The major difference among the three teams is how they accumulate these defensive numbers. Both Arizona and Boston accomplish this with range; their 37.3 and 22.8 range runs lead the league by a decently wide margin. While the Yankees do have quality range numbers, they have something that the Red Sox and Diamondbacks do not: quality outfield arms.

As a unit the Yankees’ outfielders have produced 4.4 runs above average with their arms. That ranks seventh in baseball, and just 0.3 points away from fourth. All three of the starters not only have positive arm scores this year, but all three rank in the top 20 among all MLB outfielders in arm score. Again, this passes the eyeball test at least as it concerns 2011. They’ve all had issues in the past, but it does appear that they’ve turned it around. In 2011 they’re apparently turning the corner.

Before we proceed, a word about the small sample that is the 2011 season. It is absolutely true that to gain any value from defensive metrics you need heaps of data — preferably three years’ worth. Clearly we’re not getting anything close to that by examining year-to-year improvements for each player. Yet I’m confident that we’re measuring something real — that is, something that actually happened on the field — when we’re looking at arm scores. From the FanGraphs UZR primer, arm scores are “based on the speed and location of batted balls to the outfield and how often base runners advance extra bases (advances), don’t advance the extra base (holds), or get thrown out trying to advance (kills).” While speed and location are subject to bias, the play-by-play data can give us a good idea when it comes to advances, holds, and kills. So while there is a level of noise in these data, there is also some truth, stemming from the “it happened” factor.

Since he arrived in New York, it was apparent that Nick Swisher had an arm more suited for a left fielder, or even a DH. He lollipopped throws with consistence in 2009, and the numbers bore it out; he had a -5.9 arm score, which was tied with Brad Hawpe for worst in the majors. The problems were so bad that he went to then pitching coach Dave Eiland for advice on how to better hurl a baseball. That seemingly did the trick. In 2010 he improved to -0.8 arm runs above average. This year he’s at 1.6 runs above average, which ranks 19th among MLB outfielders.

While Gardner occasionally uncorked a five-bouncer to home plate during his first two years in the outfield, he still produced generally good arm numbers. From 2008 through 2009 they went: 5.0, 2.4, 6.6. The score in 2008 and the huge jump in 2010 might have been a product of perception. Gardner doesn’t look like a guy with a quality arm, therefore coaches and base runners might be more apt to attempt the extra base. To wit, he had 12 assists last year, which ranked second among MLB outfielders. This year he has only six assists, perhaps because the league has adapted to his actual arm skill. Despite that he still has an arm score of 1.7, which ranks 15th among MLB outfielders. It suggests that he’s holding base runners, rather than killing them.

That leaves Granderson, who had mixed results in terms of arm score earlier in his career. He was actually below average in his final two years with the Tigers, but has been positive in both of his seasons with the Yankees. In fact, his 1.9 arm score from this year ranks 10th in baseball. This is due, in large part, to his eight outfield assists, which ranks 15th among outfielders. The only other year in which he’s had more than five assists was in 2007, when his arm score was at a career high 4.1. I want to say that Granderson’s arm score stems from the same bias that Gardner’s does: teams using old and unreliable information concerning Granderson. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence there to render that any more credible than any other pet theory.

On broadcasts this season the Yankees crew has often mentioned that the outfielders, not just Swisher, have worked with Larry Rothschild on their throwing. It makes perfect sense, of course, since outfielders want to generate power with their throws just as pitchers do. While it’s an anecdote, it apparently shows up in the data as well. Whatever the case, the Yankees starting outfield is not only doing an excellent job of running down fly balls, but they’re also holding and killing base runners with efficiency. After years and years of watching one of the poorest outfield defenses in the league, it’s nice to finally see the Yankees on top.