A fond send-off from an almost-Yankee

As the celebrity memorials about George Steinbrenner have appeared, we haven’t linked to them simply because they’re too numerous to count. Everyone deserves to have his or her voice heard, and the Boss had a direct impact on thousands of people’s lives. There is one, however, from an unlikely source that I believe warrants some attention.

Over at ESPN Boston, Curt Schilling, almost a Yankee once and always a hated enemy of Yankee fans, penned a moving tribute to George Steinbrenner. The Boss, Curt said, was one of the people in baseball he most respected. George was, writes Schilling, responsible for baseball’s economic strides. He revitalized the game, he revitalized the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

A certain passage from the piece leaped out at me:

After we beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, he stopped me outside the media room in the tunnel under the stadium. Here he was, I knew he was crushed, but even so he went to great lengths to talk to me and say things I’d forever remember and cherish.

Mr. Steinbrenner was the No. 1 reason I wanted to initially go to the Yankees when I learned the Diamondbacks wanted to move my contract. I loved playing for Mr. Colangelo and I saw Mr. Steinbrenner as an older, more passionate version of him. As a player, what more could you ask from the owner of your team? He did everything in his power, and sometimes things outside his control, to take care of his players and his fans, and made no qualms about who he had to bull over to do it.

So many people looked to him and the Yankees organization as being a big contributor to the unbalanced financial playing field in baseball. I say baloney. If every owner poured the percentage of his resources into their teams as Mr. Steinbrenner did, there would be far more happy fans in many more cities.

As Schilling readily admits, he and George had personality traits in common. They were both loud, brash and overbearing, and they both had a very strong desire to win. In fact, it was George’s ability to grate on people that had the Diamondbacks asking for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson from the Yanks while they settled for much less from the Red Sox.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on the almost-trade of Schilling and posited that he was almost a Yankee and almost a Yankee fan. I still get the sense reading his words about the Boss that Curt cheers on the Bronx Bombers even as he embraces Red Sox Nation. He respects the team; he respects the pinstripes; and he admired the Boss just as so many others did.

RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:05pm ET today. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

Nick Swisher and BABIP

Swish singles again | Photo credit: Elaine Thompson/AP

This isn’t the Nick Swisher you used to know. When you started following him in Oakland because of his Moneyball appearance, or if you just started watching him last year, you could have easily pegged Swisher as a certain type of player. He doesn’t hit for high average, he strikes out a lot, he hits for power, and he takes a ton of walks. The value in the latter two compensate for the former two, which makes Swisher a pretty valuable player. I’m sure that if he continued that way the Yanks would have kept him around through 2012, when they’d have to pick up his $10.25 million option. Now, though, Swisher has changed the equation with his uncharacteristic first half.

In the past Swisher has always carried a low BABIP. He peaked in 2007 at .301, but has mostly been down in the .270 to .280 range. This year he’s up at .341, which might have some thinking that it’s a bunch of luck. Yet that is not what a high BABIP necessarily means.

Different players carry different BABIPs. It’s all about the hitting style. We usually reference a player’s career BABIP because, well, it’s the same player. But when that player changes his approach we should be cautious when making statements about his BABIP. Swisher has changed enough that we might see him sustain a number far higher than he has before in his career.

So what should we expect from Swisher? Clearly his approach has changed. His strikeout rate is down and his contact rate is higher than any previous year. His swinging strikes are slightly down, though not significantly so. He’s also swinging a ton more, 44.2 percent against a 39.2 percent career average. He’s hitting more line drives than ever, and he still has 15 home runs despite 13.3 percent HR/FB ratio, which is below his career average. So there are some factors that suggest that he’ll continue hitting well.

How well? According to xBABIP Swisher is still hitting a bit above his head. That calculator, which takes into account homers, strikeouts, stolen bases, line drives, flyballs, pop ups, and ground outs, peg him for a .309 mark. That would still be above his career average, but not quite to the level he’s hitting now. The good news is that he’s outpacing that now and theoretically could in the second half. The bad news is that regression can strike at any time. If it does guide Swish back down to earth, hopefully it has the courtesy to raise up some of the underperformers.

As Mike noted before the season, Swisher showed signs that he was playing above his head last year. Yet he made adjustments and has exceeded expectations this year. There is a good chance that he continues to outperform his expected numbers because, well, he’s a changed player. He has tightened up his stance and is displaying a more aggressive approach at the plate. This could lead to even more good things in the second half, even if the projections suggest otherwise.

The case of the missing change up

Hughes gears up to throw a curveball. Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Lost in the eighth inning implosion of Joba Chamberlain in Saturday’s Yankees-Mariners affair was the change-up clinic but Javier Vazquez and Felix Hernandez put on. The two both throw devastating changes but with different approaches to the pitch. As the game wore on, the importance of the change, something plaguing Yanks’ youngster Phil Hughes, came into focus.

Javy’s pitch is a classic change. With his fastball sitting at 89 miles per hour, he throws the change ten miles per hours slower. Doing so allows his fastball to sneak up on hitters, and on Saturday night, as Javy no-hit the Mariners for the first five innings, the change shined. He threw 23 of them. Fifteen of those went for strikes with seven of the swing-and-miss and variety. As his four-seamer averaged 89.65 mph, the change at 79.55 mph worked wonders.

Opposing Javy was King Felix with a different approach to the change. Hernandez’s off-speed pitch isn’t nearly as off speed as Javy’s. On Saturday, for instance, his four-seamer sat at 94.5 miles per hour while the change clocked in at 89.96. The 4.5-mph difference makes an impact, but it doesn’t lend the pitch the same effect as Javy’s. Rather, Hernandez throws a change that moves. The vertical break on his change was over five inches, enough to watch batters swing well over the top of it. He threw 15 changes, 11 went for strikes and three were swings and misses.

We don’t need a clinic in pitching from Felix Hernandez to see what a sinking change up can do though because the Yanks have their own specialist in that field. On the season, CC Sabathia‘s change-up averages seven miles per hour slower than his fastball and has been sinking on average 6.9 inches. Sabathia’s change has always been a part of his success, and already this the pitch has been 7.1 runsabove average for the big man.

Enter Phil Hughes. A big part of the Yankees’ narrative coming out of Spring Training this year concerned Hughes’ change-up. Because, the motif went, Hughes had developed a third Major League quality pitch, the Yankees felt confident putting him into the starting rotation on the basis of a strong spring. Yet, Hughes’ change hasn’t made much of an appearance this year. The Fangraphs’ data isn’t entirely accurate, but Hughes has thrown only around two percent changes, and the pitch has been a below average one for the Yanks’ right-hander. For the pitches Pitch f/x counts as changes, the velocity separate has been around eight miles per hour, and the downward movement at 6.6 inches, both very good numbers.

By and large, though, Hughes’ change-up has been one of the major questions hovering around the Yanks’ pitching staff this season. Where has this pitch been? Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal asked just that question last week, and the Yankees insist they’re still working on it with Hughes. Jorge Posada spoke about their reasons for avoiding the pitch. “It’s only going to get better if we call it, but as a catcher, you don’t want to get beat on a fourth pitch, so you have to pick the spot to do it,” the Yanks’ cathcer said. “We know it’s there. It’s mainly my fault and probably Cervelli’s fault. We need to not forget about it and call it at times.”

Costa discusses how Hughes’ success with his fastball has led to his eschewing the change. Phil knows the heat can blow away most hitters, and as he dominates hitters during the first time through the lineup, there’s no place for the change. This pitch should come to play later, and as Costa notes, in admittedly small samples, Hughes’ ERA goes from 2.40 in the first three innings of the game to 5.14 after as hitters adjust to the four-seamer.

Still, Hughes maintains that this pitch will be a part of his arsenal this season, and he says he hasn’t shied away from throwing it during his bullpen sessions. “I really feel like it’s there,” he said. “Sometimes I just get away from it. One hundred pitches goes by quick. Before you know it, you haven’t thrown many…”I’d like to say that down the line, you probably will see more of it.”

I too would like to see more of it. Despite an All Star Game appearance in which he got dinked to death by a seeing-eye single, Hughes is on the brink of stardom. He should be a mainstay at the front of the Yankee rotation for years to come, but he and the team’s future need that change up. As the Yanks move into the heat of a pennant race and teams get their second or third looks at Phil this year, Hughes will have to throw that pitch to stay ahead of the game.

Looking at the defense of Yankee catchers

One of the Yankees’ obvious weaknesses this season is their defense behind the plate. Jorge Posada has long been a butcher back there, and even though Frankie Cervelli was voted as the organization’s best defensive catcher several years in a row by Baseball America, extended playing time in 2010 has exposed him as no better than average defensively. At least for now, I mean, he could always improve with more reps and experience.

Posada has thrown out just 19% of attempted basestealers this year, Cervelli even less at 14%, and that’s just part of it. The passed balls have allowed countless runners move up, and there’s no better example of it than this game against the Mariners two weeks ago. Posada allowed two runners to move up on a passed ball in the 8th inning, and one pitch later a two run single tied the game. While not completely responsible for the blown lead, the defensive miscue was certainly a big factor.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Considering how much we’ve talked about catcher’s defense this year, I wanted to try and come up with an actual number for how many runs the Yanks’ backstops have cost them defensively this season. Because there are so many immeasurables when to comes to catcher’s defense, we’re going to have to stick with the basics: stolen bases, caught stealings, wild pitches, and passed balls. Of course this isn’t perfect, because it’s not just catchers that factor into those four stats, pitchers have a say as well. The broad assumption in this analysis is that the pitcher’s effect will even out when looking at the 30 teams across the first half of the season.

Stolen bases and caught stealings are nice and easy to understand, a guy either successfully stole a base or he didn’t. There’s a little more of a gray area with wild pitches and passed balls because official scorers and their sometimes questionable decisions come into play, and there are certainly wild pitches that a catcher doesn’t even have a chance to make a play on (say a pitch over everyone’s head to the backstop). I’m looking at it in a bottom line kinda way, did the catcher stop the ball or not? Good catchers will still stop a fair share of would-be wild pitches, and even then we’ll assume the number of plays a backstop had no chance on will even out given the sample.

I tallied up each teams total in the four stat categories for the 2010 season, then assigned run values to each event based on The Book. Defensively, a stolen base against costs a team 0.16 runs, but throwing a runner out trying to steal saves 0.45 runs. You don’t need to be a sabermetric whiz to understand that losing a baserunner hurts a team more than moving one up 90 feet helps. Wild pitches cost 0.26 runs, passed balls 0.28. It makes sense that those two are close in value, since they’re basically the same thing with two different names. I turned everything into a rate stat for comparison purposes, arbitrarily selecting 180 innings as my unit of time (20 games).

The big league average is exactly two runs lost defensively per 180 innings, which passes the sniff test because it’s tough for a catcher to prevent runs in this analysis. He’d have to throw out a ton of runners to actually save runs, which just isn’t realistic. It basically comes down to who gives up the fewest runs. The AL average is 2.2 runs lost, the NL 1.9. I ran the numbers just to see if the small ball NL approach had a big impact in the numbers, but it’s good to see that they’re close. I’m going to use ML average for the rest of the post.

You can see my entire table of results here. The table’s too big to embed, so just click the link if you want to see the full breakdown by team. My fancy acronym for this stat is cRSAA/180, which stands for catcher’s runs saved above average per 180 innings. Yes, I just wanted a nerdy name, so sue me. All I did was figure out how many total runs a team lost defensively per 180 innings, and compared it to that 2.0 ML average. The Cardinals have the game’s best defensive catching corps, saving 1.9 runs above the league average per 180 innings. This passes the sniff test because Yadier Molina has a reputation as a studly defensive backstop. The Diamondbacks are on the other end of the spectrum at 2.4 runs below average. Apparently they’re bad at everything.

The Yankees came in at 1.4 runs below average, tied for fourth worst in the game. The only teams below them are the D-Backs, Pirates (-1.6 cRCAA/180) and Angels (-1.5), and they were tied with both the Giants and Red Sox. Over a 162 game season, assuming nine inning games, the Yanks’ catchers will cost them 11.34 runs defensively, which is basically one win. For comparison’s sake, St. Louis would pick up a win and half because of their catcher’s defense, Arizona would lose another two games. The different between the best and worst teams is three and a half wins, hardly insignificant.

It probably didn’t surprise you that the Yanks came in towards the bottom of the pack, or at least it shouldn’t have. Let’s break it down individually for Posada and Cervelli…

First of all, apologies to Chad Moeller. Secondly, as you can see neither Posada or Cervelli are assets on defense. Posada has cost the team 1.8 runs below average with his glove for every 180 innings he’s caught this year, Cervelli a touch less at 1.1. If Posada were to catch 120 nine inning games, his defense would cost the team 10.8 runs, or one win. Of course his offense, even at 2010 levels, would provide just over 17 runs, so the next gain is six runs, for all intents and purposes.

Cervelli, on the other hand, would cost the team 6.6 runs below average if he played 120 nine inning games, and his bat would also be another 7.4 runs below average assuming 2010 levels of production. All told, the Yankees would be 14 runs in the red with Cervelli as their starting catcher compared to six runs in the black with Posada. It’s a 20 run difference, two wins in a tight AL East. This assumes a set designated hitter and that only one of the two catchers play per game.

Yes, this is an extremely oversimplified way of looking at things. There are parts of catcher’s defense that we can’t even begin to quantify, but the information we do have tells us that the Yanks’ catchers are hurting them with the glove. Posada mitigates all of that damage with his stick, Cervelli not so much. He’s supposed to be just a backup though, so in theory it shouldn’t hurt as much. You expect those guys to be below average. The real problem is that Cervelli has had to play so much this season that both his bat and glove have become detriments to the team in a very real way.

Catching issues are hard to hide just because of the nature of the game. The catcher is in on every play, every pitch. The demands of the position are so extraordinary that most of the time you’re just looking for the least harmful option. You don’t expect offense, you just hope for something more than complete incompetence.  The Yankees’ catchers are holding them back a bit this year, but their pitching and offense is good enough to more than make up that lost win in the standings.

Catch RAB on the Pulse Network’s Sports Buzz

A little late-morning self-promotion: I’ll be making a live appearance at 12 noon today on the Pulse Network’s Sports Buzz show. They’re on right now, talking with Dan Duquette, and you can watch it live right here. I’m calling in to talk about Joe Girardi‘s All Star Game decisions, where the Yanks stand heading into the second half, what potential moves the team could make before the trade deadline and, of course, George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard.

Poll: Favorite moment of the first half

As Yankee fans, we’re privy to many exciting and memorable moments. We have Aaron Boone taking Tim Wakefield deep, Derek Jeter diving into the stands, David Cone throwing a perfect game on the same day Don Larsen threw out the first pitch, Jim Leyritz turning a World Series around with one swing of the bat … I could go on and on, but we only have so much bandwidth to spare. The first half of the 2010 season was no different, as the Yanks again supplied plenty of memorable moments.

Today we’re going to vote for which first half moment was our favorite. After some consultation with Ben, Joe, and a few others, I picked out six of the best moments of the season’s first three months and present them below, not that you’ll need the refresher course. Once you relive the magic, vote in the poll at the bottom of the post.

April 7th: Granderson takes Papelbon deep (video)
The season was just two games old at this point, but new centerfielder Curtis Granderson had already made his mark in pinstripes by homering in his very first plate appearance of the year. After splitting the first two games of the series, the Yanks and Boston headed into extra innings tied at one in the third game. Jonathan Papelbon was on the bump for the Red Sox in the 10th inning, having already thrown a perfect 9th on just ten pitches. The first batter of extra innings was Granderson, who fouled off a first pitch fastball before connecting with a chest-high heater on pitch number two. The ball landed several rows deep in the right field seats, giving the Yanks a lead they would protect for the win. It takes quite a bit to win over Yankee fans, but hitting a pair of homers against the Sox in the first three games of the season is a good start.

April 21st: Hughes flirts with a no-hitter (video)
I wouldn’t call it controversial, but the team’s decision to go with Phil Hughes as the fifth starter in 2010 certainly wasn’t unanimously agreed with by the fans. It took Phil all of two starts to prove the Yanks right. After a solid outing against the Angels first time out, Hughes took the mound in front of his parents in Oakland and simply dominated the A’s. He started the game by striking out Cliff Pennington before walking Daric Barton on four pitches, but that was all the A’s would get for a while. Hughes retired the next 20 batters he faced, and there he was in the 8th inning just six outs away from a no-hitter with a very manageable pitch count of 85. Unfortunately, long-time Athletic Eric Chavez singled on a first pitch fastball off Hughes (literally) to start the 8th, Oakland’s first base hit of the game. Phil faced three more batters before giving way to the bullpen, and even though he didn’t finish off the no-no or even the game, he showed everyone why the Yanks were right to make him the fifth starter.

May 8th: Tex goes deep, again and again and again (video)
Mark Teixeira‘s early season slumps have become a rite of spring, and things seemed to be turning the corner in early May, just like last season. The Yanks were back in Boston with Tex sporting a .181/.328/.295 batting line, though he got the scoring started with a 3rd inning run scoring single. That was his least productive hit of the day. Two innings later he took Clay Buchholz deep to right for a solo shot, and then two innings after that he did the exact same thing to Ramon Ramirez. Two homers from Tex were a godsend given his performance to that point (he had two homers total coming into the game), but he tacked on a two run shot in the 9th off outfielder turned mop-up man Jonathan Van Every for his third homer of the game. Teixeira raised his season OPS from .623 to .740 in this one game, simultaneously becoming the first Yankee to have a three homer game in Fenway since some dude named Lou Gehrig.

May 14th: A-Rod slams the Twins (video)
Much like Teixeira, the 2010 season started off a little slowly for Alex Rodriguez. He went into the May 14th game against Minnesota with just one homer in his previous 89 plate appearances, and unsurprisingly the team had lost four of their last five games. Down 4-3 in the 7th, the Yanks started to scratch out a rally when Derek Jeter singled and Frankie Cervelli doubled, though their struggles with runners in scoring position seemed to kick in again when Brett Gardner popped up to shallow left. Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire pulled a page out of the 2008 playbook, intentionally walking Tex to load the bases for the unclutch A-Rod. New pitcher Matt Guerrier needed all of two pitches to turn a 4-3 lead into a 7-4 deficit, surrendering a grand slam that carried just far enough to left-center. Alex had lifted the offensive burden off everyone’s shoulders, giving the team a much needed lead and win.

May 17th: Walking off against Papelbon (video and video)
I guess mid-May was a lot busier than I remember. Ben and I were in attendance for this one, and things started off very much in the Yanks’ favor. They hung a five spot on Daisuke Matsuzaka in the 1st inning, but slowly gave that lead away and then some over the next seven innings. The Red Sox carried a 9-7 lead in the 9th inning, and went to Papelbon to nail things down. Gardner made things interesting immediately, doubling to left to bring the tying run to the plate. Tex flew out deep to right, sending Gardner to third, but those extra 90 feet proved to be moot. A-Rod sent the first pitch of his at-bat into the visitor’s bullpen, tying the game at nine and giving the Yanks’ new life. Frankie Cervelli reached base on a hit by pitch after Robbie Cano made the second out of inning, and much like A-Rod three batters earlier, Marcus Thames jumped all over Papelbon’s first pitch for a two run walk-off homer. He became the second new Yankee of the season to take the Red Sox closer deep for a game winning homer.

June 27th: Comeback against the Dodgers (video, video, and video)
The calling card of the 2009 Yankees was their ability to come from behind and win, but up until this game they hadn’t really shown the same flair for the dramatic. The Dodgers headed into the 9th nursing a four run lead, and went for the kill by bringing in All-World closer Jonathan Broxton. What happened next? Tex struck out, A-Rod singled, Cano doubled in A-Rod, Posada singled and sent Cano to third, then Granderson walked. That loaded the bases with one run already in, but the rather punchless bottom of the order was due up. Boy, did they come through.

Chad Huffman singled to right to drive in two, sending Grandy to third. Colin Curtis, six days into his big league career, fouled off pitch after pitch in a ten pitch at-bat before grounding out to first, driving in Granderson to tie the game at six. One inning later, Cano muscled a ball over the left-centerfield fence for a two run homer, giving the Yanks a two run lead and grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat.

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These aren’t necessarily the biggest moments in terms of WPA swings or anything like that, they’re just memorable occasions that stick with us, regardless of how important they were in the grand scheme of things. Heck, some of these aren’t even individual moments, but rather a series of moments. Vote below to pick your favorite, and if one of these wasn’t your favorite moment of the first half, then tell us what you think it is in the comments. Thanks in advance.

What was your favorite moment of the first half of the season?
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