Looking at the Yanks’ projected defense

GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees’ brass have been preaching the mantra of “get younger and more athletic” for years now, and they have done so in each of the last two offseasons. They effectively replaced the trio of Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon (combined 2010 age: 111) with Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson (combined 2010 age: 88) while handing the 26-year-old Brett Gardner something close to a full-time job this year.

The improvement made with this transition is noticeable in more ways than one. First of all, it’s easier on the bottom line, even with Tex’s massive deal. Swisher and Granderson will combine to make $750,000 less this year than what the Yankees paid Damon by himself last year. Secondly, the younger players are less susceptible to the daily aches and pains associated with a 162 game season, and generally recover quicker than players on the wrong side of 35. Durability is a big part of it. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on the third way the young players are an improvement over the old dudes, and that’s defensively.

Last year, the Yankees posted a team UZR of -18.5, 18th best in the game (or more accurately, 12th worst). Sadly, that was a massive improvement from their -44.5 UZR in 2008, which was third worst in all the land. With Damon, and to a lesser extent the perpetually average Melky Cabrera elsewhere this year, the Yankees stand to improve some more on the defensive side of the ball.

Using Jeff Zimmerman’s UZR projections, we can get an idea of how the Yanks’ projected starters for the 2010 season should do with the leather. Remember, these are just projections based on a weighted regression of the last four year’s worth of data, and are in no way predictions. They’re just a fancy estimated guesses, really. The table, obviously, is on the left.

Because we’re looking at the total defensive production from the individual positions in 2009 and comparing it to just the projected starters for the upcoming season, we’re really comparing apples to … slices of apples.  More accurate than oranges, but not whole apples. Guys like Ramiro Pena, Randy Winn, (ugh) Marcus Thames, and who knows who else will make their mark throughout the season, for better or for worse. For us though, this is fine.

The real improvement comes in the outfield, which is good because new fourth starter Javy Vazquez and new fifth starter Phil Hughes are fly ball pitchers, as are bullpen mainstays David Robertson, Damaso Marte, and Al Aceves. Despite his struggles down the stretch last year, Granderson has been an above average defensive centerfielder his entire career, which is what the UZR projections see him being in 2010. Sliding Gardner over to left instantly improves the position, even if he undershoots his projection by a few runs. Nick Swisher will probably be the same Nick Swisher in right, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s still damn effective.

As for the infield, well that crew remains unchanged from last year except for one thing: they’re all a year older. Zimmerman’s projections are age adjusted, which is why they see 36-year-old Derek Jeter‘s defense dropping significantly despite the improvement he’s made in recent seasons. Shortstops that age who don’t decline with the glove are few and far between. Ditto 35-year-old third basemen. I expect Jeter and A-Rod to be collectively below average next year, though I’m hopeful it’ll just be slightly below rather than oh-my-goodness-this-is-Sarah-Jessica-Parker-ugly defense.

Cano and Tex are firmly in the primes of their career, and even though their UZR doesn’t always jive with what our eyes tell us, I think we can all agree they’re no worse than league average as a tandem. The Yankees will be fine on the right side of the infield both offensively and defensively as long as no one gets hurt.

The Yankees have come a long way since 2005, when they trotted out what was arguably the worst defense in baseball history. They’ve managed to do so while importing some long-term pieces on affordable contracts that are more than total zeroes with the bat. They figure to be even better in 2010, which can only help the pitching staff that posted the second best xFIP (4.23) in the American League last season.

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP

Cashman: Joba a ‘starter in the bullpen’

Is Joba Chamberlain a reliever for good? We’ve heard many opine that since the Yankees announced that Phil Hughes will be the fifth starter this season. The GM doesn’t believe it, though. As Newsday’s Anthony Rieber reports (subscription required), Cashman still believes Chamberlain is a starter. “He’s a starter in the bullpen. He can do both. He’s a starter who was just beaten out in the competition. That’s what we honestly believe, but we only had one spot.” That sounds about right. It does give me some faith that, should something happen to a current member of the rotation, Joba could, and should, be first in line to get a crack.

Open Thread: Nick Swisher FTW

With the Opening Night match-up between the Yankees and the Red Sox fast approaching, ESPN has started to roll out its on-air promotions. The first way to hit the World Wide Leader is a doozy, and Nick Swisher, obviously, steals the show.

The set-up: Clay Buchholz and actor Adam Scott are singing Sweet Caroline when the chorus comes up. They toss it over to Swisher who, well, you’ll see. He gives it right back to them as only Nick Swisher could do. Afterward, Buchholz steals Swisher’s laptop and runs away. Only part of this paragraph is true.

It might not as classic as the Old Spice commercial that always makes me laugh, but it’s a good one. Who can complain when the Yankees come out on top anyway?

Anyway, this is, as the title may give away, your open thread for the evening. The Devils host the Rangers tonight while the Islanders take on the Flames. The Knicks and Nets are both mercifully off tonight, and some of my favorites on NBC — Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock — are all new tonight. In the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent to each other.

Garcia dazzles in minor league outing

Frankie Piliere of AOL Fanhouse was in the building yesterday to watch Yankees’ farmhand Chris Garcia take on the Phillies in a minor league contest, and I think saying he was impressed is an understatement. “Garcia is a complete, three-pitch pitcher, and that is with three plus pitches,” he says. “I don’t like to throw around plus grades often, so to see a pitcher with three plus pitches is a real rarity.” Of course, stuff was never the issue with Garcia, it’s always about his ability to stay on the mound. He’s dealt with knee, elbow, and oblique issues over the last few years, and has thrown just 260.2 innings since being drafted in 2004, 112 of which came in 2005.

Hopefully he stays healthy this season and surprises us all by contributing to the big league team in some capacity. I’m not going to hold my breath, but you’re more than welcome to get excited. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Stats We Use: OPS+, wRC+, and ERA+

In previous installments of this series we’ve covered the basic offensive, defensive, and pitching stats we use when discussing player production. Those familiar with the statistics will recognize what it means when we say a player has a .355 wOBA. Those who aren’t, though, might have a bit of trouble determining exactly what that means, even if they’re familiar with the workings of the statistic. To make things easier, we have a number of stats which compare production to the league average. We’ll dive into these today.

OPS+

Baseball Reference has changed the way we view statistics. The site makes everything presentable and easy to access, so we can look up our favorite players and see exactly what they did. One statistic that B-R founder Sean Forman created was OPS+. OPS, as you likely already know, stands for On-Base Plus Slugging. Since the ability to get on base and the ability to hit for power represent two of the most important things a batter can do, mashing the two stats together made enough sense, even if it double-counts singles — not to mention combines two stats that have different denominators.

The other problem with OPS is that it deals with two statistics on different scales. The maximum OBP is 1.000, while the maximum SLG is 4.000. The answer, then, is to weight the statistics when combining. Forman went with (1.2*OPB) + SLG, and then placed that figure on a scale where 100 was league average. That made the stat easier to understand. Instead of having just a number, OPS+ put the number in context by comparing it to everyone else in the league. Now we know that when a player has a 120 OPS+ that he’s well above league average. We might not have been able to discern that by just seeing a, for example, .870 OPS by itself.

Improved as it may be, OPS+ is not perfect. For instance, Tom Tango believes that OPS+ still undervalues OBP, and that the calculation should be (1.8*OBP) + SLG. Even so, OPS+ is an improvement over straight OPS, not just because of the 1.2*OBP calculation, but also because of how easily it tells us what we want to know. But, perhaps there’s a better stat for this.

wRC+

Uh oh. Another stat with a lower-case letter. For some this might mean trouble. It’s not, though. In fact, it works right along with wOBA to provide us with a scaled view of player production.

The story of wRC+ doesn’t go back too far. In December Alex Remington wrote a wOBA primer, and Tango made a comment about one of Alex’s lines regarding wOBA in relation to OPS and OPS+. Later, in the comments, Tango said that he did not want wOBA+, but rather wRC+ — weighted Runs Created on a league scale. He used the BaseRuns formula to demonstrate how easy it would be to implement, and FanGraphs proprietor David Appelman (a great guy, really!) implemented it. The whole process took about a day. No joke.

The basics of wRC+ can be found in the wOBA primer. It uses the same system, basically, but instead of outputting a rate stat it outputs a counting stat, weighted Runs Created, or wRC. The number is park adjusted and scaled to the league. Like OPS+, 100 is league average. I prefer wRC+ to OPS+ not only because of the slight flaw in the OPS+ calculation, but because it assigns a proper value to each component, whereas OPS+ still uses the arbitrary measures of two for a double, three for a triple, etc.

ERA+

Like OPS+, ERA+ can be found at Baseball-Reference. This one won’t take but a paragraph to explain. Like OPS+, ERA+ is on a scale where 100 is league average. You can compute it right from home, too. Just take two minus the player ERA divided by the league ERA and multiple by 100. In other words: 100 * (2 – playerERA/leagueERA).* That’s literally it. The advantage, of course, is that you can determine how much better than average a pitcher was, no matter what the run environment.

* They did change ERA+ just yesterday. It produces the same results, in that the players are ranked the same. The formula change just makes ERA+ linear. That is, a player with a 122 ERA+ is 22 percent better than league average. The old way didn’t handle it like this. Sean Forman, proprietor of Baseball Reference, explains: “With the new formula, the equation is linear, so if the league ERA is 4.50 and you have one pitcher at 3.50, one at 3.00 and one at 2.50 you get ERA+’s of 122, 133 and one at 144 (one is 22% better than the league, one is 33%, and one is 44% better). It seems to me the numbers make a little more sense this way.”

I’d like to see this expanded to FIP. It shouldn’t be hard to create FIP+, and I do wonder sometimes why it’s not a readily available stat. Probably because FIP stands fine by its own, since it’s not really based on the same value scale as ERA. Still, I do like the concept of adding context by scaling to 100. It gives us a one-glance idea of how a player performs compared to his peers.

Next up

There will be one or two more posts in this series, touching on some other offensive and pitching measures. The ones in the series so far, though, are the ones we’ll primarily use.

2010 Season Preview: The Four Benchmen

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The days of the 11-man pitching staff seem behind us. Bullpen specialization, combined with managers employing a slightly quicker hook for starters, makes teams more comfortable with seven available bullpen arms rather than six. This becomes a big deal when creating a 25-man roster. In the AL it means a shallow bench. Eight position players plus a DH leaves just four sports for reserve players, one of which must be a backup catcher. Teams must be cautious, then, when choosing their bench players.

Thankfully, the Yankees have the personnel to make the bench work. While both Nick Swisher and Nick Johnson start at other positions, they can fill in for Mark Teixeira at first if needed. They also have a number of players in the system who can play the other three infield positions, making only one of them necessary for the 25-man roster. That leaves one spot for a reserve outfielder and one spot for a pinch hitter. The bench need not necessarily work that way when the team breaks camp, but it should end up that way soon enough.

Photo credit: Charlie Riedel/AP

Last season the Yankees started the year with a heavy bench, even with A-Rod sidelined with his hip injury. The only consequence was a downgrade from Cody Ransom to Ramiro Pena, not a huge one at all even considering Pena’s rookie status. In the outfield they had Melky Cabrera and Nick Swisher, both starters the previous year. It’s tough, actually, to build a better bench than that. It was probably the Yankees’ best in five or more years. Xavier Nady‘s injury thinned it out in April, though, and the team had to react. They later traded for Eric Hinske for pinch hitting purposes. The bench, again, seemed strong.

Photo Credit: Steve Senne/AP

This season the Yankees’ bench doesn’t appear as strong as 2009, but it still provides the Yankees with what they need. Ramiro Pena or Kevin Russo will serve as the all-purpose utility man, Brett Gardner or Randy Winn will serve as a reserve outfielder and possibly half of a platoon, Francisco Cervelli will back up Jorge Posada, and Marcus Thames will get at-bats late in games mixed with the occasional start against a lefty. That doesn’t seem too bad at all. Perhaps the Yankees will seek a better pinch hitter than Thames come mid-season, but he’s a serviceable option to start the season.

Even though solid, the bench doesn’t come into play a lot, especially the utility infielder. Robinson Cano played 161 games, Derek Jeter played 153, and Alex Rodriguez, a year removed from his surgery, likely won’t take as many days off. This should limit the utility infielder to 100 plate appearances or so through August (there’s no telling what happens in September when rosters expand). If the winner of Pena/Russo doesn’t hit, or has problems in the field, the Yanks can swap them. The actual difference it makes, though, will be marginal. There will be chances in the outfield, as the left field situation doesn’t seem quite settled. Also, since neither Brett Gardner nor Randy Winn carries a heavy bat, a pinch hitter could get late-game opportunities.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Just how do the projection systems view the Yanks’ four bench players? Mike already covered Winn in his left field preview, so here are the remaining three.

Cervelli:


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Pena:


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Thames:


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The average projections seem fairly reasonable. Thames, as we know, is all power and not much else. That could make for a good bench player, at least to start the season. If he doesn’t prove effective, the Yankees can go shopping in June. That yielded Eric Hinske last year and could easily net them a similar player this year should the need arise. Pena and Cervelli appear perfectly reasonable for their roles. Cervelli could see more playing time, depending on Jorge’s situation.

Again, the Yankees’ advantage is that they don’t need the bench for very much. Pena will give the infielders a day off, while Winn will spell the outfielders. Thames will come up when the team needs a long fly and Gardner or Winn is due up. Those all seem like very limited roles. Cervelli is the only one who figures to play regularly, though we hope not too regularly. He’s fine as a backup. Hopefully that’s the only role he fills this season.

Yanks tab Hughes as fifth starter

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has officially announced Phil Hughes as the team’s fifth starter. While the team will say that Hughes earned the job with his confident and solid Spring Training pitching, the truth is that the job was Hughes’ to lose. For some reason or another — and I’m sure it will be discussed ad nauseum over the next few days — Joba Chamberlain had pitched himself out of contention by the end of last season.

For now, this leaves Joba Chamberlain twisting in the wind. After the Yanks kept him tethered to a strict set of rules, innings and pitch limits throughout 2007, 2008 and 2009, the team has yet to determine his role in 2010. “I think Joba could do either job,” Girardi said to reporters this morning, “but right now we feel Hughes is ahead as a starter.” Girardi’s comments, apparently, stem from the development of Hughes’ change-up.

When asked about the ever-important eighth inning, Joe Girardi said, “You have to earn your spot.” While Joel Sherman seems to think this makes Chamberlain destined to be Mariano Rivera‘s prime set-up man this year, I wonder if Girardi is referring to Joba’s spot on the team. As I speculated just this morning, the Yanks could opt to go with Boone Logan while sending Joba to AAA to keep his innings up.

Meanwhile, Phil Hughes, all of 23 years old, hasn’t been a starter over the course of a full season since his injury-free 2006 campaign. That year, he threw 146 innings but hasn’t reached that total as a professional at any level since. Last year, over the course of the Minor League season, his Major League campaign and the playoffs, he threw 111 innings, and I believe the Yankees will try to cap him somewhere within the 165-175 innings range. Based on the team’s schedule, they don’t need a fifth starter until April 24, and Hughes should, in other words, be able to last the season in the rotation.

Dave Eiland discussed the end of restrictions for Joba in February, and he did mention that Hughes would be on a limit. “You’ve got to remember,” Eiland said, “Joba had restrictions because he never had a full season in professional baseball as a starter. Phil Hughes has had several minor league seasons as a starter. So there’s going to be restrictions, but they’re not going to be as strenuous as Joba. And I’ll just leave it at that, right there. There’s restrictions, and we’re on the side of caution with all our guys.”

What all of this means for Joba, I have no idea. Girardi said that Joba would throw one inning on Saturday, and if that doesn’t sound like relief prep work to me, I don’t know what is. Yet, for now, a limitless Joba will be seemingly in a limited role. How this makes sense for the Yankees of 2010, the Yankees of 2011 or the Yankees of the future, I don’t know. Joba needs his innings; Phil needs his innings. The Yanks shouldn’t be giving up on Joba after three years of yoking his chain. The team, though, hasn’t made an announcement regarding Chamberlain’s future, and until then, I’ll hold my breath.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP