Why Darvish makes sense for the Yankees

It appears that the free agent starting pitcher market will gain one more member. While C.J. Wilson appears to head the class currently, we’ve long heard that Japanese phenom Yu Darvish could go through the posting process and head stateside this winter. According to Kyodo News, via JapanBall.com, Darvish plans to ask his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, to post him after his season ends early next month. A team source says that Nippon Ham will grant the request should Darvish officially make it. Darvish has since denied the report, but he has every reason to do so. Again, his season is not over, as the Fighters still have the Climax Series ahead of them, and perhaps the Japan Series.

At this point it’s difficult to determine exactly how interested the Yankees are in Darvish’s services. As Moshe Mandel wrote on Monday, it’s tough to believe what anyone says regarding Darvish. The blind posting system lends itself to misinformation campaigns. If the Yankees truly are interested, they have no reason to broadcast that fact. They’ll certainly put in a bid, even if it’s only to drive up the price by feigning interest. It’s the aggressiveness of the bid that’s in question.

Yesterday on The Yankee Analysts, David P of Yankees Source provided first-hand scouting information on Darvish. It’s worth the full read, since it reveals information we likely won’t see anywhere else. My two main takeaways: 1) Though he’s an established star in Japan, to an MLB team he’s really a top-tier prospect, and 2) he’s already answered a number of challenges in his career. Again, the entire article gets RAB’s highest level recommendation.

Now that you’re more familiar with Darvish himself, let’s place him in the context of the Yankees needs and resources. Obviously they’ll hunt for pitching this off-season. Even if they bring back CC Sabathia they could certainly use another arm atop their rotation. C.J. Wilson is the only other realistic possibility on the free agent market, and he’d likely cost the Yankees in the $100 million neighborhood (I’d still consider 5/90 the most likely case). He’ll also cost the Yankees a first-round draft pick in 2012, making for the second straight first rounder they’ll have lost. That’s usually a worthy sacrifice for a top-flight pitcher. But the Yankees might do better with Darvish.

For starters, the posting system provides the Yankees a huge advantage. That’s straight money, with no luxury tax or payroll implications attached. If they want to pull a Red Sox and plunk down a $50 million bid, they can do that with no additional penalty. As we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the ensuing contract likely won’t come near the deal that Wilson will eventually sign. That means a lower overall payroll, which allows the Yankees more resources to fill out other roster spots. At this point we can loop back to David’s scouting report and see that there’s a chance that Darvish is straight better than Wilson. Baseball provides little in the way of guarantees. A smart gamble can make all the difference, and it appears that Darvish could be that smart gamble.

At the same time, a smart gamble is still a gamble. Darvish faces many challenges when coming to the US. All around the baseball world, from reporters to fans, I’ve seen the sentiment that the Kei Igawa experience has scared off the Yankees from Japanese pitchers. Few have had long-term success, and two of the most recent transitions, Matsuzaka and Igawa, have flopped badly. Even more recently, Kenshin Kawakami spent his second American baseball season in AA, while Koji Uehara had to make a bullpen transition. But at the same time, we don’t exactly have a long track record of Japanese pitchers to judge. Only 37 Japanese-born players have ever pitched an inning in the majors, and only 14 have topped even 200 career innings. Narrowing the field further, only six have made 100 or more career starts, and only one has made more than 200 starts.

Part of the narrative explaining Japanese pitchers’ relative lack of success is the wholesale changes they face when coming to the States. Culture shock is but one aspect. A change in routine might be more important. Japanese pitchers throw once a week and spend their days training for that routine. It takes a complete change in routine and training regiment to pitch on the MLB five-day schedule. Many pitchers cannot make that adjustment — Matsuzaka, reportedly, would not change his routine despite the different environment. But I refer to the second takeaway from David’s post. Darvish has already answered a number of challenges in his career. It gives me more faith that he can successfully transition to MLB.

The Yankees’ most abundant asset is their capital. Their win-now, win-always management style means draft picks become scarce. That style can also lead to an out-of-hand payroll. With Darvish the Yankees have a perfect opportunity. They can add a potential star — a young potential star — using only their most abundant resource. They also avoid payroll bloat, since Darvish’s contract figures to come in much lower than Wilson’s. There are risks involved, for sure. While there are indications that Darvish can handle the transition, there is no guarantee. There’s also no guarantee that his stuff plays up in the majors. But there are no guarantees with Wilson, either. It’s not an either-or, in that the Yankees can decline to pursue both. But if they do want to add a top-flight starter to the rotation, Darvish could be the man. He fits their M.O. perfectly.

What Went As Expected: CC Sabathia

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

There are few things in baseball than qualify as sure things, but CC Sabathia qualifies as a sure thing. The big left-hander can be counted for a plethora of high-quality innings year after year, and that’s exactly what he gave the Yankees in 2011. If you want to build a fun narrative, you can say Sabathia did it while performing with the pressure of having to be The Guy in a rotation that was full of question marks on Opening Day.

The season started with reports of weight loss, up to 30 lbs. thanks to a Captain Crunch-free diet. Sabathia cruised through Spring Training and opened the season with a win over Justin Verlander, holding the Tigers to two earned runs over six innings. He two-hit the Twins across seven scoreless next time out, then allowed one run in 5.2 IP to the Red Sox. CC finished the month of April with a 2.25 ERA in 40 IP, and he continued to pitch well into mid-June (3.39 ERA in 114 IP). Something seemed to click on June 25th, however.

Sabathia struck out nine Rockies across eight one-run innings that day, walking just one. Five days later he struck out 13 Brewers across 6.2 scoreless innings, tying his career high in strikeouts. Eleven whiffs in seven scoreless against the Indians followed that, then nine whiffs in a complete game shutout of the Rays followed that. On July 26th, Sabathia set a new career high with 14 strikeouts, flirting with a perfect game against the Mariners. From June 25th through July 26th, a span of seven starts, the big lefty allowed just five runs in 54.2 IP, striking out 72 and walking just 16. Opponents hit just .166/.232/.219 off him during those seven games. It was easily the best regular season stretch of his Yankees career.

That July 26th game against the Mariners featured a pair of rain delays, the first in the sixth inning (about 30 minutes) and the second in the eighth inning (about 14 minutes). Sabathia walked three batters in a row after the second delay, giving way to David Robertson in the eventual win. CC seemed to struggle with his control within the strike zone the rest of the season, because he still wasn’t walking anyone, just giving up a ton of hits. Sabathia allowed exactly ten hits in four of his next ten starts, plus nine and seven hits in the other two. He was still piling up a ton of strikeouts (45 in 42.1 IP) and not walking anyone (just five), but the hits were falling in and his homerun rate (six homers through his first 168.2 IP) had started to regress (nine in those 42.1 IP, including five solo shots by the Rays on August 12th).

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Sabathia stumbled to the finish, with a 4.30 ERA and a .314/.358/.502 opponent’s batting line through his final nine starts. Some blame it on the rain delay game, some blame it on his increasing weight, some blame it on the six-man rotation used in the second half, and some blame it on something else entirely. The ALDS was a total mess, Game One was postponed due to rain after an inning and a half, then CC lost to Verlander three days later in the “new” Game Three. He was one of many relievers to come out of the bullpen in Game Five as well. All told, Sabathia allowed six runs in 8.2 IP against the Tigers, uncharacteristically walking eight while striking out eleven. The Yankees lost the series in five, and that was that.

Despite the slow finish, 2011 was Sabathia’s best season in pinstripes. His strikeout rate (8.72 K/9) was the second best of his career, his walk rate (2.31 BB/9) was the third best of his career, his ground ball rate (46.6%) was the third best of his career, and his homerun rate (0.64 HR/9) was the best of his career. After three straight years of enjoying sub-.300 BABIPs, he had to live with a .318 mark in 2011. Sabathia logged 237.1 IP (!) during the regular season, his fifth (!!) straight season over 230 IP (!!!). Only twice all year did he fail to complete at least six innings in a start, and both times he went 5.2 IP.

Whether you prefer bWAR or fWAR, this was the second best season of Sabathia’s career (6.9 bWAR and 7.1 fWAR), trailing only that monster 2008 campaign with the Indians and Brewers (7.1 and 7.6, respectively). His 3.00 ERA was the best by a Yankees starter since David Cone in 1997 (2.82), and his 8.71 K/9 was the best since Roger Clemens in 2002 (9.50). He also became the first Yankee to throw 230+ IP in three straight seasons since Ed Figueroa (1976-1978). This is nothing new for Sabathia though, he’s spoiled us by being this great since the day he signed his contract, a contract he will inevitably opt-out of a few days after the end of the World Series.

The Five Biggest Yankees Hits of 2011

(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Yesterday afternoon I looked at the five longest homers of the Yankees season, but that was more for fun than anything else. A homerun counts the same whether it goes 315 ft. or 550 ft., but the timing of the homer can increase its impact on the game. This morning I’m going to look at the five biggest hits of the Yankees season in terms of Win Probability Added, or WPA. Hannah did something very similar a few weeks ago, looking at the biggest hits by Leverage Index, or LI. If you don’t understand the difference between WPA and LI, Joe’s got you covered right here. There is some overlap between my list and Hannah’s list, but not much.

A little later today I’m going to have something on what I think was the biggest single hit of the season from an emotional/intangible/fanboy point of view, a hit that doesn’t crack the top five of my list or Hannah’s. With some help from the Baseball-Reference Play Index (subs. req’d), here are the five biggest hits of the season by WPA…

May 11th: Curtis Granderson vs. Joakim Soria (video) (WPA Graph)

The fifth biggest hit of the year came not only in a game the Yankees lost, but it was the also the first game of that ugly six-game losing streak in mid-May. A.J. Burnett went seven strong against the Royals, but David Robertson (of all people) allowed Kansas City to tie it in the eighth. Buddy Carlyle (remember him?) gave up a go-ahead double to Jeff Francoeur in the top of the tenth, and a few minutes later Soria was brought in to protect the one-run lead.

Soria was having a rough start to the season, and that showed when he walked Russell Martin on four pitches to open the inning. Brett Gardner bunted him over to second, then Derek Jeter moved him to third with a ground out. That brought Granderson to the plate with two outs, seven innings after he hit a solo homer off Vin Mazzaro. The Royals closer fed him a 2-2 curveball, but that sucker hung like crazy (watch the video, total hanger) and Curtis lined it to right for a game-tying single. It was the biggest hit of the game at +0.40 WPA, but unfortunately Carlyle allowed the Royals to retake the lead in the 11th, leading to the eventual loss.

May 24th: Curtis Granderson vs. Frank Francisco (video) (WPA Graph)

The Grandyman was in full blown beast mode at this point of the season, coming into this game with a .260/.335/.607 batting line with 16 homers in just 46 team games. He beefed up that batting line with three hits in his first four at-bats, but it was his fourth hit that did the most damage.

CC Sabathia struggled through the first 3.1 IP of the game, allowing four runs on eight hits, but he settled down and retired 17 of the final 18 men he faced, including the last 16 in a row. The Blue Jays were up one heading into the bottom of the ninth, and it was Jorge Posada who started the comeback rally with a one-out double to right-center as a pinch-hitter replacement for Eduardo Nunez. Chris Dickerson pinch-ran, then moved to third on another Jeter ground out. Frankie Frank came after Curtis with a 2-1 breaking ball (another hanger), and the Yanks’ center fielder grounded it past the first baseman for a game-tying single. He then proceeded to steal second and score the winning run on Mark Teixeira‘s walk-off ground ball single, but it was his +0.40 WPA game-tying knock that takes home the title of fourth biggest hit of the season.

Sept. 3rd: Robinson Cano vs. Casey Janssen (video) (WPA Graph)

The Yankees had just moved past the Red Sox in the standings and taken hold of first place in the AL East, and now they were trying to hang onto it for dear life. Starters Bartolo Colon and Ricky Romero had given up a bunch of runs early, but Toronto nursed a 4-3 lead into the seventh inning. Romero got the first two outs on line drives to dead center, but then started to unravel by hitting Granderson with a pitch and walking Alex Rodriguez on four straight.

Janssen, who came into the game with a 1.99 ERA and a 43-13 K/BB in 45.1 IP, jumped ahead of Cano 0-2 before the Yankees second baseman worked it back to 2-2. The sixth pitch of the at-bat, a cutter, was left right out over the plate, and Robinson smoked it into the gap to score both Granderson and A-Rod, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 lead. Nick Swisher tacked on an insurance run with a single one batter later, and Robertson made the lead stand up with a two-inning save while filling in for the overworked Mariano Rivera. This game will probably be better remembered for Jesus Montero‘s first career hit, but it’s Cano’s +0.41 WPA double that had the most impact. The Yankees maintained their lead over the Sox and didn’t look back.

April 14th: Jorge Posada vs. Kevin Gregg (video) (WPA Graph)

Posada had a great start to the season and a great ALDS, but he didn’t do much of anything in between. The Yankees trailed the Orioles 5-4 heading into the ninth inning of their 11th game of the season, with newly signed closer Kevin Gregg coming on to nail things down for the Fightin’ Showalters. Posada, 0-for-3 on the day to that point, wasted no time tying things up, jumping all over a first pitch fastball for a game-tying solo homer into the Yankees bullpen to knot the game up at five. Swisher would give his team the walk-off win one inning later, but it was Jorge’s solo shot that made it all possible. At +0.43 WPA, it was the second biggest hit of the season.

August 25th: Russell Martin vs. Fautino De Los Santos (video) (WPA Graph)

Seems kinda weird that the biggest hit of the season comes in a game the Yankees won 22-9, doesn’t it? The game wasn’t always that lopsided though, the Yankees scored a dozen runs in their last two offensive innings to put things out of reach. The A’s smacked Phil Hughes around early before Cano hit a grand slam off Rich Harden to turn a 7-2 game into a 7-6 game. The big hit came one inning later.

Craig Breslow took over for Harden in the middle of the fifth, and stayed in the game to start the sixth. He plunked Granderson with the first pitch of the inning, but got the first out when Teixeira lined out to left. In came De Los Santos, who immediately walked A-Rod on five pitches and allowed the two runners to move up to second and third on a wild pitch. Cano went down hacking for the second out of the inning, and Oakland chose to intentionally walk Swisher to load the bases for Martin.

Santos, and extremely hard-thrower, jumped ahead with a first pitch fastball before throwing a pitch in the dirt for ball one. The intentional walk seemed curious because Martin had been 2-for-2 with a walk and a homer already in the game, and he made it 3-for-3 with a walk and two homers when he drove the 1-1 fastball over the right-center field wall to turn a 7-6 deficit into a 10-7 lead. This game will forever be remembered as The Three Grand Slam Game (capital letters are important), but it was Martin’s salami that registered as the biggest Yankees hit of the 2011 season at +0.45 WPA.

Open Thread: The Old Bullpen

That doesn’t look very welcoming, does it? That’s a picture of the bullpen (presumably the home bullpen) at the Old Yankee Stadium, a grimy place that looks more like a Penn Station bathroom than a place where million dollar athletes spend the big chunk of their day. I’m certain the New Stadium has state-of-the-art bullpen quarters, or at least I hope it does for the relievers’ sake. Yuck. The picture comes courtesy of Andy Gray, by the way.

Anyway, here is your open thread for this baseball-less night. The Rangers are playing, but they’re on the west coast and don’t start until 10pm ET. That’s it for local sports. What a depressing weekday evening. Talk about whatever you want here, have at it.

Jesus Montero will not play winter ball

Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees have decided to have Jesus Montero skip winter ball this year. Montero is on the roster of the Navegantes del Magallanes in his native Venezuela, but it’s just a placeholder spot. The plan is to put him on a strength and conditioning program, but nothing more.

In other winter ball news, the Yankees will allow Eduardo Nunez to play this offseason, presumably back home in the Dominican Republic. They would like him to get reps in the outfield, but because he has so little service time, the Yankees are unable to control how he’s used. It’s up to his winter ball team. Hector Noesi will be starting in the winter ball, and Brian Cashman confirmed to Jennings that the right-hander will be held to a strict pitch count.

An unlikely tandem in right field

Look, guys: Mike started it. Me? I love Nick Swisher. I want him patrolling right field in Yankee Stadium next year, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the Yankees ink him to a three-year extension afterward. But no. Mike had to be all like, they should pick up his option and trade him and they should totally trade him for Shaun Marcum. Thanks, Mike. Thanks a lot. So now in the hypothetical world of RAB the Yankees are without a right fielder. Oh, and guess what? Brian Sabean just gave Carlos Beltran four years at $60 million. So where’s the hypothetical RAB right fielder now?

The Yankees do have a few guys in the system who could tag team in right field. Chris Dickerson spent plenty of time with the big league club this year, and has about a season’s worth of MLB at-bats under his belt. He has been almost perfectly league average in that span, a 103 wRC+, so he could probably hold his own in a platoon situation. Think Karim Garcia in the second half of 2003. Not an ideal solution, but you could do worse with half a platoon.

The right-handed side gets a little trickier. The Yankees clearly have little regard for Greg Golson. Unless they plan to go with Nunez as the primary backup at 2B, SS, 3B, RF, and LF — thus freeing up a few bench spots — chances are Golson, who is out of options, won’t be with the team come April. The alternative is Justin Maxwell, whom the Yankees claimed off waivers from the Nationals last spring. Like Dickerson, Maxwell has major league experience, producing a 91 wRC+ in 260 PA. He’s clearly a flawed player, but he does have some pop. Perhaps limiting his appearances to just lefties would help prod him along. He’s been quite a deal better against them in limited major league duty, and he absolutely crushed them in the minors.

Really? A Chris Dickerson/Justin Maxwell platoon in right field? As if. While they’re certainly an unlikely tandem, especially for the Yankees, they’re not the pair to whom I refer in the post title. But they are on the 40-man roster, which makes them a bit more likely than, say, two players who aren’t on the roster. Or, to be more accurate, one who is on the roster but will not be once the World Series ends, and one whom most Yankees fans would probably decry before the ink dried on his contract. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a platoon alternative to Nick Swisher:

Andruw Jones and J.D. Drew. Please, hold your rotten vegetables until the end.

Jones we all know from his time with the Yankees this season. After a slow start he really came around, punishing baseballs delivered from left hands. It’s clear that he’s no longer a full-time player, nor is he in any way an elite defender. But he can hold his own, especially in the relatively small right field of Yankee Stadium. A few people would rather see him depart, I’m sure, but given what’s on the market and what’s in the Yankees system, if they were to trade Swisher it’s hard to argue that the Yankees would be better off with anyone else, within reason, as the right-handed half of a RF platoon.

It’s Drew that will make many fans cringe. To those who have followed his career only in passing he’s an oft-injured softie who, given the opportunity, will make like Jason Giambi in the 2003 World Series. But that ignores the massive good Drew has done throughout his career. Sure, his .222/.315/.302 line from 2011 is fresh in everyone’s minds, but someone with his career resume probably has something left in the tank. He did hit .264/.370/.455 during his five years with the Red Sox, and was .275/.382/.478 against right-handed pitching. The right-field porch could help add some pop, leaving him as a decent one-year stopgap solution in a platoon role.

Convinced? Good, because I’m not, either. Yet this is an example of what the Yankees could have in right field if they opt to move Swisher. The only other alternative is to explore the trade market, but that’s never a sound primary strategy. It’s tough to determine what teams will trade a quality player at any given position, and even tougher to determine what they want in return. You can try to figure out a trade that would net the Yankees a right fielder, but may I remind you that your trade proposal sucks.

The Yankees have a fine right fielder in Nick Swisher. If you don’t believe me, check out Larry Koestler’s post on the matter. Given the alternatives in right field, the Yankees are pretty clearly best served by picking up Swisher’s option and returning him to the position he’s manned for the past three seasons. Unless, you know, you want a Jones/Drew or a Dickerson/Maxwell platoon in his stead.

The Five Longest Yankees Homers of 2011

For the second time in three years, the Yankees led the majors in homeruns in 2011, whacking 222 balls over the fence during the 162-game regular season. It was just about a 55-45 split between home (122 homers) and road (100), probably not as extreme as you might expect given Yankee Stadium‘s cozy right field porch. Unsurprisingly, a number of those 222 homers were absolute moonshots, traveling well beyond the MLB average of 396.3 ft.

With some help from Hit Tracker, let’s look at the five longest homers hit by a Yankee this season. Surprisingly, that Andruw Jones blast you see above did not make the cut.

May 6th: Curtis Granderson vs. Matt Harrison (video)

The Yankees were in the middle of a stretch to forget in early-May, coming into this Friday night game in Texas having lost three straight and six of their last ten games. Thankfully, the Grandyman gave his team some breathing room with a first inning homer off the lefty Harrison, a two-run shot thanks to Derek Jeter‘s leadoff single. The 1-1 fastball traveled 443 ft., and landed in the second deck in right-center field, well beyond (and above) the Rangers bullpen. For good measure, Granderson hit another homer later in the game, but that one only traveled 411 ft.

August 16th: Robinson Cano vs. Danny Duffy (video)

Not only was this the fourth longest homer of the Yankees season, it was also their third longest plate appearance. The Yanks and Royals had been trading blows for the first three innings of this game, and Mark Teixeira had just singled in a run to make it 5-5 when Cano stepped to the plate. Duffy appeared to be running on fumes, and sure enough he fell behind in the count 3-1. That’s when Robbie started hacking. He fouled off seven straight pitches – fastballs, sliders, you name it – before the rookie southpaw hung a breaking ball on the 12th pitch of the at-bat. The no-doubt shot landed just shy of the fountains in right-center, 449 ft. from home plate. The homer gave the Yankees an 8-5 lead in a game they would eventually win 9-7.

August 24th: Mark Teixeira vs. Grant Balfour (video)

One week after Cano’s shot, Tex one-upped him with a game-tying, eighth inning solo shot. The Yankees were down 3-2 when Balfour grooved a 3-1 fastball belt-high and right over the plate to the first batter he faced. It was long gone off the bat, a mammoth 450 ft. blast that landed halfway up the bleachers in right-center. The Yankees went on to lose the game in extra innings, but they only got that far because of Teixeira.

April 9th: Robinson Cano vs. Al Aceves (video)

The Yankees didn’t win very many games against the Red Sox early in the season, but the one time they did beat them in April, they did so on the strength of four homers. The third of those four homers came with the good guys up 7-4 in the sixth inning with Aceves, the former Yankee, on the bump. The Mexican Gangster quickly got ahead of Cano, but the 0-2 fastball was too far up in the zone and Robbie tomahawked it into deep right field for a solo homer. The ball landed in an exit ramp about halfway up the stands, and like Teixeira’s shot off Balfour, it traveled 450 ft.

June 10th: Alex Rodriguez vs. Fausto Carmona (video)

Coming out of a stretch in which he went deep just five times in 182 plate appearances, A-Rod was in the middle of a homer binge in early-June. He’d hit two balls out of the park in the five games prior to this one, and he hit one out the next day as well. This sixth inning solo homer traveled further than them all though. The Yankees had jumped all over Carmona for an early 5-0 lead, but he was left in the game to take one for the team and spare the bullpen. The 2-0 sinker ran right back over the plate, and Alex launched the pitch to dead center field. It landed just to the left of the restaurant and in the first row of the left field bleachers, beyond Monument Park. At 460 ft., it was a) the longest homerun hit by a Yankee in 2011, b) the 29th longest homer hit by any player in 2011, and c) the second longer homer in the history of New Yankee Stadium.