Remembering the Next Generation

Nomar Garciaparra officially announced his retirement yesterday, although it caught no one off guard considering the non-exist market for older players. It seems like just yesterday that Nomar, along with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, had effectively taken the shortstop torch from Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin, and represented the new wave of offensive shortstops.

Despite being the youngest of the trio, A-Rod made his big league debut first, racking up 11 hits in a 17 game cameo during the summer of ’94. An extended look in 1995 resulted in a 72 OPS+, though Alex certainly made his mark in 1996, when he began the season as a 20-year-old. He led the league with a .358 batting average, 379 total bases, 141 runs scored, and 54 doubles. Overall, his .358-.414-.631 batting line with 36 homers earned him an All Star selection, a Silver Slugger Award, and a second place finish in the MVP voting. At 9.4 WAR, it remains one of his three best individual seasons to date.

A-Rod would go on to spend another seven years at shortstop, winning an MVP and a bunch of Gold Gloves and other stuff along the way. As you know, he slid over to third base in the prime of his career, at age-28, to join the Yankees. Had he remained at short, he would have hit more homers than anyone else at the position in history by now, and we’d be talking about him as one of the two or three best players ever given his positional value.

The current Yankee captain was the next to debut, getting into 15 games during the 1995 season before his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1996. He’s unquestionably the most decorated of great shortstop trio, with his five World Series rings and all. A career .317-.388-.459 hitter, the Yankee icon is within striking distance of 3,000 hits and will soon hold several of the franchise’s all-time records. Well, more than he does now, anyway.

And then there’s Nomar. The oldest of the group, he was also the last the debut, getting a September call-up in 1996 before becoming Boston’s full-time shortstop in 1997. His first four full seasons were nothing short of epic, as he piled up a .337-.386-.577 batting line while averaging over 28 homers per year. Fans in Boston claimed their young shortstop was better the Yankees’ young shortstop, and up until the 2000 season they were right. Of course, Jeter had the rings, so none of us were complaining.

But unlike Jeter and A-Rod, Nomar’s career just didn’t have the longevity. Wrist issues would sabotage his 2001 season, when he appeared in just 21 games and his OPS dropped from 1.033 to .822. He was never really the same after that, hitting .305-.349-.523 while battling the ailment through the 2003 season. Obviously, that’s still outstanding production from a shortstop, but a far cry from his glory days.

Nomar reportedly turned down a four-year, $60M contract extension following the 2003 season, which led to his name appearing in trade rumors. The Red Sox were slated to acquire another Next Generation shortstop – A-Rod – from the Rangers for Manny Ramirez, and in a sister move they would have shipped Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. The deal(s) fell apart and a few weeks later the Yankees boasted two Next Generation shortstops compared to Boston’s one.

In his final 38 games as a Red Sox in 2004, Nomar hit .321-.367-.500 with five homers. He was famously shipped to the Cubs at the trade deadline in a four team megadeal that netted Boston Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. Nomar would play just 99 more games at shortstop the rest of his career, as injuries reduced him to a corner infielder and eventually a part-time player.

Garciaparra retired as a .313-.361-.521 career hitter on Wednesday, the first of the Next Generation of shortstops to call it quits. Always a Yankee killer, he hit .326-.360-.556 with 14 homers in 95 games against the Bombers, including .298-.342-.528 in the Old Stadium. Garciaparra missed 633 of 1,647 possible days due to injury after the 2000 season (38.4%), which was ultimately his last hurrah. More than 13 years after the Next Generation of shortstops took the game by storm, just one of the three players remains at the position, and the player who looked most destined for Cooperstown in the early going called it quits after failing to find so much as a minor league deal on the open market.

Just as Joe Nathan’s injury allows us to appreciate Mariano Rivera’s longevity, Nomar Garciaparra’s retirement reminds us just how amazing Derek Jeter’s career has been, especially as he has remained at such a tough position.

Photo Credit: Mark Lennihan, AP

Open thread: Best infield ever, redux

In case you missed it, this afternoon Mike wrote about the Yankees infield as perhaps the best of the modern era. It was in response to a Bill Conlin column that, quite frankly, isn’t worth a second link. The article has made its arounds, and even Phillies fans don’t think it holds true.

Before Conlin unleashed his column, though, frequent RAB commenter Jamal G. was busily working on a similar article. But, instead of pandering to a fan base, he was legitimately curious as to which team in the modern era had the best infield. You can find his article here. To preview, it involves a lot of Yankees and Reds.

With that, here’s your open thread for the evening. We’ve got a Rangers-Devils bout in New Jersey, Knicks and Nets away games, and plenty of college basketball on ESPN.

What might possibly happen if we ever left our mother’s basement

This isn’t Yankee-related whatsoever, but Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas wrote an absolute must-read article on Rangers’ general manager Jon Daniels. He touchs on everything from when Daniels was hired as the youngest GM in baseball to when he almost traded for Josh Beckett to when the Mark Teixeira trade put his rebuilding plan into motion. The entire article runs about 3,500 words, but it’s so worth it. Truly fascinating stuff.

When he replaced John Hart as GM in 2005, Daniels was about four months younger than I am right now. Excuse me while I go cry myself to sleep…

Do hitters benefit by being aggressive on the first pitch?

A few weeks ago, an article by broadcaster John Sciambi made its rounds. In it he talked about broadcasters and statistics, but one anecdote stuck out. It involved a conversation with Chipper Jones, in which Sciambi wondered whether Jones wold be better off taking the first pitch more often. Jones, as Sciambi found out via FanGraphs, saw the second lowest percentage of first pitch strikes in the league. Could it hurt to start taking more on 0-0 counts, then?

The ensuing saga provided not only entertainment, but plenty of knowledge. Kevin Kaduk of Big League Stew asked Jones about the first pitch situation, and Jones came back with an excellent reply.

“There are certain pitchers, quite frankly, that you can’t get behind,” Jones said. “You want to be aggressive and the first hittable fastball that you get is the pitch you want to put in play. Because they’ll bury you if they get ahead of you. You can’t let them do that.”

This led Dave Allen to do a quick study, in which he graphed Chipper’s first-pitch swinging tendencies. Just as Chipper tells it, he swings more often at the first pitch when a good pitcher is on the mound, while he takes more against lesser pitchers. It didn’t stop there, though. Allen later found out that the average hitter does not share Chipper’s tendencies. This makes sense, of course, because Chipper is far better than an average hitter. But even when Allen further broke down the study, he found that even hitters comparable to Jones did not share his tendency.

Of course, my summary here won’t do the saga justice. If you’re going to geek out this afternoon, I’d suggest reading through the linked articles. None is too long, and each is well worth the time. I’m not sure if others will adopt Chipper’s strategy, but I’ve certainly implemented it in The Show.

Do the Phillies’ really have the best infield of the modern era?

We get dozens of links through our tip box each day, but most of the time it’s something we’ve already found or a piece of minor news. However, this morning a reader sent in a link to this Bill Conlin column from today’s Philly Inquirer, claiming that the Phillies have “what is potentially the greatest all-around infield of a modern era that began in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson kicked down the door that had barred players of color from the major leagues.”

Now don’t get me wrong, the Phillies’ current infield alignment of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Placido Polanco is very, very good. It’s obviously a championship caliber quartet and one of the best in recent memory,  but is it the best infield of the modern era? No. It’s not even the best infield in the game today.

Conlin notes that the Yankees’ infield “slammed 112 homers [in 2009], three more than the Phillies with [Pedro] Feliz at third. But the Phils’ Fab Four won the RBI war, 393-373.” Of course, we all know counting stats – especially RBI – are stupid. They lack context for things like park effects, league difference, injuries, the whole nine. Just looking at raw triple-slash stats, the Phils’ four main infielders collectively hit .273-.344-.473 with a .358 wOBA in 2009. The Yanks, meanwhile, saw their four main infielders hit … wait for it … .310-.384-.519 with a .390 wOBP as a group. That’s a .903 OPS infield. It’s like having four Josh Hamilton’s circa 2008 on the diamond, but just a touch better. The Yanks infield had 44 more hits and 20 more walks than the Phillies’ infield last year despite coming to the plate 158 fewer times. Obviously, this is no contest offensively.

Conlin suggested the Phillies potentially have the best all-around infield, meaning things like defense and baserunning count too. And of course they do. We watched Jason Giambi negate much of his offense with his defense for the better part of a decade. The easiest way to examine this is to look at WAR, so let’s do that. Everything comes from Sean Smith’s database

I’m not sure if the 2010 projection has Polanco at second or third base, but it doesn’t matter since the move from a middle spot to a corner spot carries a negative positional adjustment. Either way, the Yankees were better last year, and project to be better this year. Unlike FanGraphs’ WAR, CHONE’s accounts for baserunning, so we don’t need to worry about adjusting anything. The 2010 projections for the two infields are pretty close, just about half a win apart, so it is possible the Phillies’ infield outperforms the Yanks’,. That would require a considerable fall from grace by Jeter and a major rebound from Rollins, though.

Also, just look at this subjectively. Howard can mash, but so can Tex, and the Yanks’ first baseman is one of the best defenders at his position in the game. Utley is clearly a better player Cano, and the same could be said about A-Rod and Polanco. Jeter’s not going to put up the same kind of homerun totals that Rollins will, but he’s a better offensive player because of a massive advantage in on-base percentage. Jeter closed the gap defensively the last two seasons, but Rollins has the better rep. Even if you feel like being extremely generous and consider Tex-Howard and Jeter-Rollins to be washes, the difference between A-Rod and Polanco is greater than the difference between Utley and Cano.

I can understand why fans and the media in Philadelphia are excited. They’ve got a great lineup, added Roy Halladay, and have won two straight pennants, but when it comes to infield might, they’re going to have to play second fiddle the Yankees. Again.

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola

2010 Season Preview: Can Jeter keep it up?

It’s really not as easy as Derek Jeter makes it look. Last season, the Yankees became the first team in baseball history to win the World Series with a 35-year-old shortstop, though you wouldn’t have been able to tell Jeter was that old by his .344-.432-.563 postseason batting line. The Captain has spoiled us for more than a decade, though history tells us that the end may be coming sooner than we expect.

Since baseball’s expansion era began in 1961, just six players age-35 or older have managed to post better than a 100 OPS+ while playing at least 100 games at the shortstop position. The best individual season of that group came just last year, when Jeter hit .334-.406-.465 with a .390 wOBA (132 OPS+) in 150 games at the position. The next best season was Barry Larkin’s .338 wOBA/118 OPS+ campaign in 2000, when he played just 102 games, so you can see just how absurdly historic Jeter’s season was for an older shortstop. The historical data gets even grimmer when you look at shortstops age-36 or older, because just three players in the last half-century have managed to be above average offensively while playing the position for at least 100 games.

Those three players, like Jeter, are all either in the Hall of Fame or will be very soon. The careers of Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio are defined by their outstanding defense, and even though Larkin was the complete package of offense and defense, he battled injuries throughout his entire 19-year career that limited him to just seven seasons of 140 or more games played. Larkin’s age-36 season, that .338 wOBA/118 OPS+ one I mentioned in the last paragraph, was the last time he was an above average every day player. Roberto Alomar, another great all-around middle infielder, was a shell of himself by the time he was Jeter’s age. History clearly does not portend good things for the Yankees’ captain.

Older players are generally unable to provide the level of quickness and athleticism required at the shortstop position, yet amazingly Jeter has managed to improve his defense despite entering his mid-30’s. After bottoming out at -16.0 range runs in 2007 (-16.7 UZR), Jeter improved to -3.2 range runs in 2008 (-0.7 UZR) and +3.7 range runs in 2009 (+8.4 UZR). All of that progress was made after GM Brian Cashman told the Captain that he wanted him to improve his defense over dinner. Because they’re weighted over the last three season, Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections see Jeter regressing back down to a -2.0 UZR defender next season. It’s almost impossible to see Jeter repeating last year’s defensive excellence, though hopefully he doesn’t crash that hard.

Always a threat on the bases, Jeter’s a high percentage basestealer (85.7% success rate last year, 79.% last year) that’s good for anywhere from 10-30 steals per season. He’s been consistently worth about one run above average when you consider all aspects of baserunning (advancing on sacrifice flies, moving up on grounders, etc), so there’s no reason to suspect him to be any worse than that next year. Sure, he’ll probably lose a step or two, but running the bases is more about smarts than pure speed.

Moving ahead to offense, let’s see what the five freely available projection systems have in store for the Yanks’ captain. Remember to click for a larger view.

After posting a .390 wOBA for the fourth time in his career last season, the projections have Jeter dropping off to a .359 wOBA in 2010. While that doesn’t match the career low .343 wOBA he put up in 2008, it would be his second worst offensive output since 1998. While an 8% decline in offense is significant, keep in mind that only three non-Jeter shortstops bested a .359 wOBA in 2009. Jeter’s offensive production would continue to be very good for the position, but no longer elite.

Rounding it all up, we have the various projections calling for the Cap’n to put up a .359 wOBA in 660 plate appearances, -2.0 UZR on defense, and let’s call it another +1.0 run on the bases. The works out to 4.3 WAR, about a three win drop off from Jeter’s ungodly 2009 campaign. If he’s a +3.2 UZR defender (halfway between his 2009 mark his 2010 projection), then it bumps him up another half-win to 4.8 WAR. Given the historical suckiness of 36-year-old shortstops, the Yankees should be ecstatic if they get a four-plus win season in 2010.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Jeter’s expiring contract. History has shown that the Yankees should avoid doing anything but going year-to-year with Jeter from here on out, but that’s just not feasible. He’s the face of the franchise, and if he has the kind of season he’s projected to have in 2010, it’ll be near-impossible for the team to sign him on favorable terms. Either way, the contract is going to take both sides into uncharted territory regarding shortstops Jeter’s age.

Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP

A complex solution to a modest problem

Does baseball need to realign its teams and divisions? Probably not, but that won’t stop interested parties from discussing the possibilities. A few weeks ago Ben addressed Ken Rosenthal’s plan, which includes many teams switching teams and leagues. That might have sounded radical, but it’s not quite at the level of the plan Tom Verducci shares. Unlike Rosenthal’s, this plan, which involves changes on a yearly basis, is actually being considered by baseball officials.

Just how would a floating realignment scheme work?

One example of floating realignment, according to one insider, would work this way: Cleveland, which is rebuilding with a reduced payroll, could opt to leave the AL Central to play in the AL East. The Indians would benefit from an unbalanced schedule that would give them a total of 18 lucrative home dates against the Yankees and Red Sox instead of their current eight. A small or mid-market contender, such as Tampa Bay or Baltimore, could move to the AL Central to get a better crack at postseason play instead of continually fighting against the mega-payrolls of New York and Boston.

For starters, I’m sure only three teams want to break up the AL East. The rest would rather see the Yankees and the Sox in the same division. After all, why would you want one of the two biggest spending teams to separate and possibly move into your division? That could actually make it easier for both the Yankees and the Red Sox to win their divisions, since 1) they’re not fighting for the same division title, and 2) they would no longer play each other 18 times a year. In fact, if one moved to the NL — interleague moves would be permitted under this plan — they wouldn’t play each other except during the interleague period.

At first I thought that the complexity of a floating system was a bug in the system, though after further thought I think it’s a feature. Fans love the off-season. The Yankees won the World Series this year, yet more people visited the site during the Winter Meetings than the World Series. A series of measures to determine yearly realignment could add another level to the off-season. I’m sure we’d all pay close attention as teams vied for optimal places within divisions, thus determining their main competition for the following season.

The flipside is that plenty of teams would try to use the system as a way to punt their rebuilding seasons. In Verducci’s example, the Indians would essentially be running and hiding from the competition, taking their licks from the AL East — or whatever division at the time presents the toughest competition. This not only allows teams to hide away as they rebuild, but it allows better teams to face weaker competition. This is the part of the idea I like least. If floating realignment does become a real possibility, I’d far rather see a system where the best teams get grouped somewhat together, so that they can play each other more often.

While MLB likely won’t implement this plan, it is a much better option than static realignment in order to break up the Yankees and Red Sox. Again, only three teams really care about this issue. The rest probably like having the two in the same division. Static realignment also ignores the possibility — and, in the long term, certainty — that the Sox and Yanks fall from power. The whole thing will be for naught if two teams in another division accumulate the power the Yankees and the Sox currently wield.

Still, floating realignment does have its benefits. I’d like to see a sampling of exactly how teams can change divisions. That will determine its viability. If it allows for strong teams playing strong teams more often, they might be onto something. But if it allows low payroll teams to hide out among the big boys, raking in cash at the gate when those teams come to town, I’m not sure I favor it. Any realignment plan should favor the teams that put out a quality product. To favor the Indians just because they’re rebuilding doesn’t seem like a solid reason to propose a plan like this.