2010 Season Preview: Can Swish do it again?

About a month before the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira to the fourth largest contract in baseball history, GM Brian Cashman fooled White Sox GM Kenny Williams into giving him outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher in exchange for three of the sparest of spare parts. Swisher was slated to begin the season as the every day first baseman, but once Teixeira signed on the dotted line, Swish was moved into an outfield platoon role with Xavier Nady. He was a man without a position, but he ultimately became a very important part of the 2009 Yankees.

Swisher took over rightfield on an every day basis after Nady tore an elbow ligament barely more than a week into the season, and went on to enjoy his finest season in the big leagues. He hit .249-.371-.498 with a career high .375 wOBA while batting mostly out of the six-seven-eight spots in the lineup. His 29 homers were the third most on the team behind Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and his 97 walks were second in the league. A weak postseason performance (.128-.255-.234, .282 wOBA) left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, but he basically carried the offense in April (.312-.430-.714, .473 wOBA) while Tex slumped and A-Rod was on the DL.

We know Swish is a valuable offensive player, but most fans are in disagreement about his defense. He makes the occasional goofy play in the outfield for sure, but his three-year UZR of +3.0 is rock solid. The components that make up UZR (range, errors, arm) tell us that Swisher has no problem getting to balls (+11.7 range runs), but that his arm (-6.6 arm runs) dragged him down. His 2009 UZR (+3.5 range, -1.1 arm) bears out that relationship as well. This is completely subjective on my part, but Swisher’s throwing appeared to improve considerably after working with pitching coach Dave Eiland and the since departed Phil Coke last summer, so I’m hopefully he continues that progress and the defensive metrics are a little kinder to the Yanks’ rightfielder in 2010. Either way, Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections have Swish as perfectly average defensively at right next season (meaning a UZR of zero), so let’s roll with that.

Baserunning is another aspect of the game that Swisher can make interesting. He’s not a basestealer, just seven successful steals in 15 attempts during his career, and EqBRR says he was worth -0.9 runs on the bases last year. Believe it or not, that’s the first time Swisher has been below average on the bases since 2006, though even in a best case scenario, we should be happy if he’s just league average. Brett Gardner, he is not.

So now let’s turn to offense, and the question is can he repeat what he did last season? The quick answer is yes because his 2009 performance was in line with his 2005-2007 performance, and also because he’s in the prime of his career at 29-years-old. However, there’s evidence out there that suggests Swisher might be in for a bit of a step back offensively.

Greg Rybarczyk’s great site Hit Tracker Online keeps track of every homerun hit in the big leagues going back to 2006, and sticks each one into one of three categories. “Just Enough” homers are those that cleared the fence by less than ten feet vertically or that landed past the wall by less than the fence height (so if it’s an eight foot wall, it landed no more than eight feet deep). “No Doubters” are those that cleared the fence by at least 20 feet vertically and landed at least 50 feet deep, the true monster shots. Everything else goes in the “Plenty” category.

As you can imagine, Just Enough homers are the most volatile year-to-year because they’re so close to the fence. As Rybarczyk chronicled at ESPN’s TMI blog, players who’ve hit 30 total homers in a season with at least 40% of them qualifying as Just Enoughs have seen their homer totals fall 23% on average the next season. That’s a problem for Swisher and the Yankees, because he led the American League with 14 Just Enough homers, 48.3% of his total big flies.

This isn’t the first time Swisher has been in the Just Enough danger zone either. His 14 Just Enoughs were second in the league back in 2006, exactly 40% of the career-high 35 homers he hit for the A’s. What happened in 2007? Swish regressed back to just six Just Enoughs and 22 total homers, a 37.1% drop. This isn’t to say Swisher is guaranteed to see a drop off in his homerun – and thus overall offensive – production in 2010, but it’s not looking good. Let’s see what the various projection systems say…

So yeah, the five freely available projection systems do see a slight regression for Swish, back basically to his career average with a .358 wOBA. The homer total is plenty respectable, and represents just a 13.8% decline from his 2009 total. If Swisher were to suffer the average 23% drop, he’d instead hit just 22 homers, which would further reduce his projected batting line to .236-.355-.430 with a .349 wOBA assuming those three missing homers became outs. A .349 wOBA hitter is still above average, but a far cry from what Swisher provided the Yanks with in 2009.

Okay, so combining that projected .358 wOBA with +0.0 runs defensively and say -1.0 runs on the bases, and Swisher would be a 2.6 WAR player next season, a decline of exactly one win. If we use the further reduced .349 wOBA projection, he would be a 2.1 WAR player. Those three extra homers are worth half-a-win to the Yanks.

In a way, Swisher’s 2009 season was the best case scenario for the Yankees. He provided a ton of pop and on-base skills near the bottom of the lineup, and he played basically every single day. He’s likely to improve after famously struggling at home last year (.226-.382-.394, .349 wOBA), though chances are his road performance (.268-.361-.585, .399 wOBA) will come back down to Earth as well. I like Swisher as much as the next guy, but I’m not going to be surprised if his performance declines a bit next season. You’ll see lots of people play it off as Swisher getting complacent or whatever, but now you know there’s a real baseball reason for it. Dude straight up got lucky with some homers last season.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

RAB Bracket Busters

I opened up a NCAA Tourney Pick ‘Em group on Yahoo, so if you’re interested in competing for bragging rights (and maybe a prize if we come up with something) against some fellow RAB readers, then come sign up. Here’s a group info…

Group ID: 99692
Password: riveraveblues

You can only submit one bracket, but an unlimited number of teams can join, so there’s no rush. Just make sure you sign up before the games start on Thursday. The points double each round, so you get one point for a correct pick in the first round, two in the second, three in the third, etc., for a total of 192 possible points. I don’t know as much about college basketball as I used to, but you can see my brackets here (link goes to PDF). Good luck.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 15th, 2010

Record Last Week: 4-3 (41 RS, 44 RA)
Spring Training Record: 5-7 (57 RS, 82 RA)
Schedule This Week: vs. Astros (Tues.), @ Phillies (Weds.), vs. Rays (Thurs.), @ Rays (Fri., split squad), vs. Tigers (Fri., split squad), @ Astros (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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Cano steps up into the fifth spot

Last year Hideki Matsui held down the fifth spot in the batting order. In the 267 plate appearances when he hit behind, for the most part, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, Matsui hit .266/.360/.489 with 7 doubles and 15 home runs. With his departure this off-season, the Yankees had to find someone to replace that production, and probably more. Sorting the lineup ranked high on Joe Girardi‘s priority list, and there is an early indication that he’s finished that task. His lineup card on Tuesday should reflect the Opening Day lineup, and as Mark Feinsand reports, Robinson Cano will hit fifth.

Cano actually saw the second most time in the fifth spot last year, 223 plate appearances. In those he hit .299/.318/.477, a downgrade from his season line of .320/.352/.520. His time in the fifth spot, of course, represents just a small sample, about 34 percent of his season. It’s tough to draw conclusions about his ability to hit in that spot from just a third of his plate appearances. We also won’t learn much by going into Cano’s history hitting fifth. Not only did he hit in front of and behind different hitters, but he also hit there just 61 times in his career before 2009.

The major concern with Cano’s bat in the middle of the order is his ability to hit with runners in scoring position. He should have plenty of those opportunities, since the four hitters in front of him could all have OBPs around (or, in the case of Nick Johnson, well above) .400. In 2009 he came to bat 198 times with at least a runner on second, and hit .207/.242/.332, an OPS about 50 percent lower than his season-long number. He has hit a bit better over his career, .256/.291/.398, but that’s still not a spectacular mark. It pales in comparison to his numbers with the bases empty, .331/.363/.528.

Why, then, would Girardi choose Cano to hit in this spot? As he tells it, Cano’s contact rate, the seventh highest in the majors last season, played a prominent role in his decision. If you look at the contact rate leaderboard, however, there aren’t many middle of the order bats near the top. Another factor, Cano’s high batting average, seems to make more sense on an intuitive level. Again, with four .400 OBP guys in front of him he’ll have plenty of RBI opportunities. If he hits anywhere near his .320 average from last year he’ll almost certainly drive in more than 100 in 2010.

Girardi has also said, and repeated, this spring that he believes Cano’s numbers with RISP in 2009 don’t tell the whole story. “There was a streak when he had made about 10 or 11 outs in a row with runners in scoring position, and he hit nine bullets,” he said when initially addressing the situation. “Over the long term that usually irons itself out, but when you don’t have 600,000 at-bats, it doesn’t iron out. His at-bats, a lot of times were very good with runners in scoring position. I didn’t think he had a lot of luck last year.” If Girardi is correct, and if those nine bullets find a hole this season, Cano could find himself climbing the RBI leader boards.

In terms of talent, Cano seems to fit perfectly into this lineup spot. Over his career he has demonstrated an ability to hit for average, which should play well with so many men on base ahead of him. Yet he has shown a deficiency with runners in scoring position, which doesn’t help his case for the fifth spot. If he turns it around, the Yankees will only benefit. If he does not, there are other options for the fifth spot, including Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, and even possibly Nick Swisher. Starting with Cano, however, seems like a solid move to start the season.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Open Thread: Pujols for Howard

This one made me laugh. Apparently the Phillies have internally discussed the idea of trading Ryan Howard to St. Louis for Albert Pujols. The plan was to try to sell the Cardinals on the idea that Howard, born and raised in St. Louis, would be easier (and cheaper) to sign long-term than Pujols. Both players can become free agents after the 2011 season, and are basically the same age. Of course, Pujols is the far, far superior hitter. Yeah, Howard has the bigger homerun totals, but Pujols does literally everything else better with the bat.

Phillies’ GM Ruben “fielding percentage FTW” Amaro flat out denied the rumor, which is good. Hopefully he realizes how stupid he would look if he actually proposed such a deal to St. Louis.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. The only local sports team in action tonight are the Isles, and if you turn the game on right now you could probably catch the last period. I’m sure there’s college basketball on somewhere. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, LaDainian Tomlinson signed with the Jets. Otherwise, have at it.

Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson, AP

Three more reassigned to minor league camp

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees sent righties Grant Duff and Zach McAllister, as well as catcher Jose Gil across the street to minor league camp. This is after nine players were sent down last night. The hard throwing Duff semi-broke out last year, hitting the upper-90’s at times. He wasn’t added to the 40-man roster after the season yet went unselected in the Rule 5 Draft, and there’s a non-zero chance we’ll see him in the Bronx at some point in 2010. Gil is a minor league lifer, and you all know McAllister.

Report: Hechevarria close to signing with Toronto

Via GAK3, Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria is close to signing with the Blue Jays, who will pay him $10M. The 20-year-old reportedly didn’t like his chances of playing shortstop for the Yankees anytime soon, so he instead went with the Jays. We heard the Yanks were favored to sign him just  few days ago.  That’s a lot of cash for a guy who’s basically all projection, but good for him.