Spring Training Game Thread: Oh, you again

For what feels like the tenth time this spring, the Yankees will take on the same team they beat in the World Series last year, the Phillies. With the pitching all messed up because of yesterday’s rain out, a bunch of guys already threw an intrasquad game back in Tampa. A.J. Burnett will start against the defending NL Champs, and he’ll be relieved by fifth starter candidate Phil Hughes. Both guys should be good for 75-80 pitches this time around, so chances are they’ll handle today all by themselves.

Here’s the lineup…

Gardner, LF
Granderson, CF
Teixeira, 1B
Swisher, RF
Cervelli, C
Pena, SS
Russo, 3B
Nunez, 2B
Pitcher’s Spot

Scheduled Pitchers: A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes. Not sure who else is available if needed.

First pitch is scheduled for 1:05pm ET. Even though it’s a road game, YES will have it for you. If you’re out of market, you’re in luck because ESPN will be broadcasting the game as well. Enjoy.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP

2010 Season Preview: Breaking Down Aceves

Photo credit: Tony Dejak/AP

In 2008 the Yankees featured one of the best bullpens in the American League. It got its share of work, racking up 543.1 innings, mostly because of the team’s decimated starting staff. Even still, it led the league in K/9 and K/BB, finished second, by .001, in OBP, and finished third, by .002, in WHIP. Trying to build off that success, the Yankees brought back many of those successful relievers in 2009, including Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Brian Bruney and, to a lesser extent, Jon Albaladejo and Phil Coke. The experiment turned foul pretty quickly, as the group allowed 55 runs, 51 earned, in 71 April innings.

Bruney had been lights out, but hurt his elbow mid-month. Edwar had faced 44 batters and allowed 11 hits, including three home runs, and walked eight. Hitters against him posted a ridiculous .306/.432/.583 line. Veras seemed a bit more snakebitten, a 1.09 WHIP vs. a 5.73 ERA, but he also walked way too many hitters. Albaladejo had allowed seven extra base hits to the 48 batters he faced. Clearly, something had to change in the Yankees’ bullpen, or else the current crew would blow games for the next five months.

It’s easy to cite Phil Hughes‘s move to the bullpen as the reason the unit ended up among the AL’s best in 2009. He was absolutely lights out pitching in relief, allowing just nine runs, eight earned, in 51.1 IP, striking out 65 along the way. Even though his hit total was ridiculously low, 31, he still managed a sterling 1.93 FIP. Yet the bullpen transformation came before Hughes made his move to the eighth inning in July, even before he moved to the bullpen in June. The real change came at the beginning of May, when the Yankees recalled Alfredo Aceves from Scranton.

Through his first two months he helped stabilize the bullpen, allowing just eight runs over 33.1 innings. The runs came in clumps for the most part, two in a 4.1-inning appearance against Boston and three against Texas. Of his 18 appearances in May and June, 13 were scoreless. He allowed just one run three times, twice in completely meaningless situations. He did experience a few hiccups in late July and August, probably related to back soreness. Overall his season went well, though.

Aceves’s soft-tossing style might make his performance seem like smoke and mirrors, but by secondary metrics he performed very well. His FIP sat at 3.75, mostly because he walked so few batters. He still struck out a decent amount, 7.39 per nine innings. His curveball and changeup proved effective swing and miss weapons. His walk and strikeout rates will help him in the future, when opponents will likely improve upon their .260 BABIP against him.

Another area where we might see some regression from Aceves is his home run rate. He allowed 10 home runs in his 84 innings, or 1.07 per nine innings. That might seem high, or average at best, but Aceves accomplished this while allowing a ton of fly balls. Of the 242 fair balls opponents put in play, 116 of them were fly balls, while another 42 were line drives. That led to an 8.6 percent HR/FB ratio, below league average. This is reflected in his xFIP, 4.09. Thankfully, that’s still a quality mark.

In terms of future success, Aceves’s willingness to throw all of his pitches should continue to help him. He threw just 43 percent four-seamers last year, mixing in a cutter, curveball, and changeup for the remaining 57 percent. The cutter appears to be a good straight fastball alternative, as he trades two to three miles per hour for a few inches of break. His curveball is strong, with a deep vertical drop. Lefties seem to have trouble against his changeup. In fact, Aceves performed very well against lefties in 2009, a huge plus if he can continue it in the future.

How do the projection systems see the Yankees’ potential swingman in 2010?

Click for larger

It looks like most of the projection systems expect Aceves’s hit total to rise, consistent with DIPS theory. We’ve seen it happen to countless relievers. They come on and perform very well in one season by not allowing many hits on balls in play. Then the next year their luck starts evening out, and they’re all the worse for it. Thankfully, Aceves compensates with a low walk rate, though all the systems project that to rise as well. ZiPS is clearly the most pessimistic, forecasting increased home run, hit, and walk rates and a declining strikeout rate.

Given his pitch repertoire, however, I expect Aceves to once again provide a solid option out of the bullpen. Maybe he breaks camp as the fifth starter, though I still doubt it. He’ll probably make a spot start or two during the season as well. Even if his BABIP does rise to the league average, he should still provide quality innings out of the pen. He won’t be as key to the unit’s success as he was last year, but he certainly strengthens the bullpen corps.

The 7th RAB Fantasy Baseball League

Alright, one more league, and this is the last one. I’ll post the sign up info at 6:30pm ET today, so check back then if you haven’t gotten into one of our other leagues.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 22nd, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-3 (26 RS, 27 RA)
Spring Training Record: 8-10 (83 RS, 109 RA)
Schedule This Week: @ Phillies (Mon.), vs. Nationals (Weds.), @ Orioles (Thurs.), vs. Phillies (Fri.), @ Tigers (Sat.), vs. Tigers (Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

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.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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A low UZR doesn’t mean Teixeira is a bad first baseman

Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

Mark Teixeira plays a mean first base. We’ve known this for a while. He quickly established his reputation in Texas, and for six or so games per year from 2003 through the first half of 2007 we got to see it ourselves. He just seems graceful patrolling the bag, snagging tough one-hoppers and picking low throws out of the dirt. In 2009 we got a real treat in watching Teixeira ply his craft every day. He resembled a ballerina compared to his predecessor, Jason Giambi. I think Bob Klapisch nailed it when he described Giambi as being “as graceful as Herman Munster around the bag.”

That quote comes from an article Klapisch wrote about Mark Teixeira’s UZR. For the second time in the past three seasons his UZR fell below the league average. We’ve discussed this issue in the past, and have heard many people claim that the gross misrepresentation of Teixeira’s defense proves that the statistic is useless. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While UZR might not cover everything that makes a first baseman, it still does tell us important things about defensive range.

As I covered in the UZR primer, the statistic is primarily concerned with assigning credit and blame on balls in play and comparing that to the league average. This can cause confusion in zones between two positions, such as second and first base. Maybe Yankees’ opponents hit an inordinate number of balls to that side. Maybe opponents ended up taking two bases, thus hurting Teixeira’s UZR more than a mere single. Maybe he wasn’t positioned optimally. There are plenty of reasons why, in this one season, his UZR — in specific the range component — was below league average.

Again, this does not discredit UZR, but perhaps points out some of its inefficiencies. It doesn’t factor in player positioning, and it certainly doesn’t assign first basemen extra credit for scooping balls out of the dirt. When we look at a first baseman’s UZR, we have to recognize that it will not tell us these things. It will tell us only what goes into it, and that mostly involves how often a player turned a batted ball into an out, in a particular zone, compared to the league average. For the other aspects of manning first base, we’re on our own.

To that end, I don’t think anyone would argue that Teixeira played a poor first base last season. At the very least, everyone was happy enough to see an improvement over Giambi. Yet there is an important point to keep in mind. What we tend to remember are the plays he did make. The one hopper that he snagged as he was falling down. The dive to get a ball headed for the hole. The scoop on a three-bouncer. What we probably don’t remember, what we might not even notice, are the balls he just doesn’t get to. I’m not saying that Teixeira didn’t get to all these grounders that other first baseman would have. I’m saying that it’s possible that he did miss a few plays, and that we don’t remember them because they weren’t particularly noteworthy at the time.

Also keep in mind that UZR works with small samples. How many chances does a first baseman get to field a ball? Fewer than shortstop and second base, and we normally take three years’ worth of UZR data to get a read on those positions. Over the past three years, and for his career, Teixeira’s UZR is positive. It’s not massively so, but he’s certainly not rated below average. I suspect that we’ll see him in the positive again in 2010. These things tend to even out over time.

*Bonus section

Sorry, but I couldn’t let these two utterances, one from Tex and the other from Klapisch, fly by without a comment.

Teixeira: “Look, if computers could run the game, why bother having general managers?” Because you need people to analyze and interpret the data. Also, no one’s arguing that computers should run the game in the first place. Also, scouts have their place, and it’s no marginal, second-class citizen status. Numbers are just a recording of what happened on the field, but we need to go much further in order to make the data useful. Also, there is no such thing as a perfect statistic.

Klapisch: But here’s the kicker: Sabermetrics don’t acknowledge a phenomenon known as “clutch.” Untrue, though Klap isn’t the first to misstate the general sabermetric view of clutch. The idea is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. It does make for good storytelling, though, so most staheads have backed off arguing the idea of clutch. If you think a particular player is clutch and another unclutch, fine. It is, after all, your own definition you’re applying to the players.

Open Thread: Pitchers staying in rhythm

Today’s rainout apparently messed up the Yanks’ pitching schedule pretty badly. They were looking at other teams for possible split-squad situations, but apparently found no takers. To keep everyone pitching they’ll have an intrasquad game tomorrow morning, followed by the regularly scheduled game, a 1 p.m. affair against the Phillies which will air on YES and ESPN.

In the intrasquad game Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Damaso Marte will face Joba Chamberlain, Chan Ho Park, and David Robertson. A.J. Burnett will start the game against the Phillies in Clearwater, and Phil Hughes will close the game. Burnett threw just 2.1 innings his last time around, using 66 pitches, so he might only be going four tomorrow. Hughes went four last time, and could go as many as five in relief, if they need the bottom of the ninth.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, Joe Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins. Our hypothetical from this week will remain just that.

That’s it for today, though. We’ve got the open thread, though, so kick back and relax for the evening.

Yanks reassign Montero, three others

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees have reassigned Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, Colin Curtis, and Reid Gorecki to minor league camp. With the regulars playing more and more as the season draws closer, it was time for these four to head across to the street and get regular playing time. Curtis’ performance in particular was strong, but the Yankees already have four candidates for the leftfield job, so he was always a long shot.

Dustin Moseley and Jason Hirsh were both assigned to minor league camp earlier this morning.