Imagining Frank Thomas as a Yankee

Yesterday we heard some sad news: Frank Thomas has retired after 19 big league seasons. Though sad, the news comes as no surprise. Thomas didn’t play in 2009 and saw a massive drop-off in power during 2008. Though he wasn’t quite as bad as his 72 plate appearances with the Blue Jays suggested, he posted numbers just slightly above league average in his return to Oakland that year. That left him with the lowest wOBA of his career, putting his injury decimated 2001 season aside.

Growing up, The Big Hurt was my favorite non-Yankee. I didn’t understand concepts like OBP back then, so I didn’t realize that Thomas led the league in that category in three of his first five years in the league. But I did understand batting average and home runs, both of which Thomas supplied in abundance. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that I learned about slugging percentage because of him. I just remember seeing the letters SLG on the back of his baseball card, with numbers unlike I’d ever seen, or cared to notice, listed below.

Thomas was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the 1989 draft. The Yankees, who finished 85-76 in 1988, fifth place in the AL East, didn’t stand a real chance to draft him. Even if he had fallen to them at No. 15, the Dodgers would have been the beneficiaries, since they received the Yankees’ first round pick as compensation for free agent Steve Sax. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what the Yankees, pathetic as they were in my baseball loving youth, would have looked like with The Big Hurt batting cleanup.

This is just a fun exercise, not any kind of serious analysis. I’ll use Thomas’s actual stats and imagine them in the Yankees’ lineup, tweaking aspects here and there to fit the narrative. The team did, after all, have this guy named Don Mattingly already playing first, so the storyline figures to be at least a little different.

1990

Don Mattingly, who missed seven games in early July because of back problems, finally realizes that he can no longer play through the injury. The Yankees place him on the disabled list before the game, calling up Frank Thomas from AA Albany. But, because the game was in Texas Thomas cannot make it in time. Kevin Maas gets the start at first against Nolan Ryan, who is trying for his 300th win. The Rangers give him a 2-1 lead through three, but Maas, leading off the fourth, ties the game with a home run. Ryan has to try again next start.

Sick of watching Steve Balboni strike out a third of the time, manager Stump Merrill implements a rotation between Thomas and Maas for the first base and DH spots. Though their pitching still keeps them down, the Yankees finish 73-89, one game ahead of the last-place Brewers. Thomas contributes heavily to the rise from last place, hitting .330/.454/.529 in 240 plate appearances.

1991

The Yankees face a tough situation in the off-season, having three players for the first base and DH spots. Mattingly is entering the first year of a five-year, $19.3 million contract. Combined with his status as Yankee legend, he is untradeable. With Thomas a rising star, Maas is the most expendable. The Yankees trade him to the Cardinals for Bob Tewksbury, who heads the rotation along with Scott Sanderson.

In the June draft, the Braves pick first and select Brien Taylor, a phenom prospect who has some of the best pure stuff scouts have ever seen. The Yankees pick fifth and select local product Manny Ramirez.

With Tewks at the helm and Thomas taking most of the reps at first, so to rest Mattingly’s back, the Yankees improve greatly in 1991, going 80-82. Thomas finishes third in the MVP voting, hitting .318/.453/.553, leading the league in OBP and OPS, though few baseball fans even know the terms at the time. What they do know is that he hit 32 home runs and 31 doubles.

1992

Seeing the team is on the verge of something, Bobby Bonilla chooses the Yankees over the Mets. The switch hitter turns in a nice season, hitting .249/.348/.432 to go with Thomas’s .323/.439/.536. But, most importantly, Tewksbury goes 16-5 with a 2.16 ERA, winning the AL Cy Young. He and Melido Perez head a much improved rotation, and with an improved bullpen the Yankees appear set. They finish 90-72, though that nets them only second place in the AL East to Toronto’s 94 wins.

In that June’s draft the Yankees pick 12th and take Ron Villone, a lefty from UMass. After the draft, everyone raves about the Giants, who with the sixth pick in the draft select Derek Jeter.

1993

George Steinbrenner, back at the helm, realizes that his team is poised for a division title. While Stick Michael handles the smaller moves, such as trading Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill, Steinbrenner cooks the big plot. While both players are reluctant to play in New York, Big Stein makes Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux offers they can’t refuse, paying Bonds more than any hitter and Maddux more than any pitcher in the game.

Over the course of two seasons the Yankees go from an anemic offense to a powerhouse. The batting order:

1. Barry Bonds, LF
2. Ray Lankford, SS
3. Don Mattingly, 1B
4. Frank Thomas, DH
5. Bobby Bonilla, 3B
6. Mike Stanley, C
7. Paul O’Neill, RF
8. Dion James, CF
9. Pat Kelly, 2B

And with a rotation of: Greg Maddux, Jimmy Key, Bob Tewksbury, Jim Abbott, Scott Kamieniecki

The Yankees finish 98-64, winning the AL East. They beat up on the White Sox before beating the Phillies and bringing a World Championship back to the Bronx for the first time in 15 years.

Credit: AP Photo/Harlan Chinn

Thursday Open Thread

Sorry for the delay, but here’s your open thread. Have at it.

Why Jermaine Dye never fit with the Yankees

As the Yankees searched for a left field solution this winter, we heard Jermaine Dye’s name mentioned more than a few times. Now he’s in a boat worse than Damon’s, having turned down a one-year, $3 million offer from the Cubs before they signed Xavier Nady. Now it appears no team is interested in him at anywhere near that level. In my debut post at FanGraphs, I look at four reasons why teams are staying away from Dye. When you consider his defense and his horrendous numbers to right field, the case basically makes itself.

The stats we use: WPA and LI

Now that we have discussed our favorites among defensive, offensive, and pitching stats, we’re going to move onto a more general one. Today I’m going to explain Win Probability Added, or WPA, and Leverage Index, or LI. Both are pretty simple concepts, but we use them enough on RAB that I’d like to add it to our stats guide.

Quick terms

I like the term WPA, because it accurately describes what the stat tells. You’ll also see me talk about WE, or Win Expectancy. Put simply, WE represents a team’s chances of winning at any point in the game, and WPA represents the play-by-play swing in WE.

Calculating win expectancy

It’s the bottom of the fifth, two outs, runners on first and third, home team down by one. What are the chances of the home team winning that game? Thanks to the abundance of freely available data, we can pore through historical records and find out. (Where would we be without Retrosheet?) With over 70,000 games played since 1977, we have plenty of data to draw from.

The answer to the above question, according to Walk Off Balk’s Win Expectancy Finder, is that the home team won 42.9 percent of the time. If the batter singled in the runner from third, tying the score and placing runners on first and second with two out, the home team’s win expectancy rises to 57.1 percent, or a 7.9 percent swing. When we calculate Win Probability Added, the hitter gets credited with .079, and the pitcher gets debited.

As we’ll see in a second, however, this particular Win Expectancy Finder contains certain flaws.

Stripping out bias

I first started following WPA in 2005 when I wrote some blog that no one read. To calculate it I used Dave Studeman’s WPA spreadsheet, which was based on the Win Expectancy Finder. All I had to do was input the game’s play-by-play results, and the spreadsheet would track WPA throughout the game, assigning blame and credit to pitchers and hitters, and in the end creating a neat graph. It seemed like the perfect implementation.

Then, when RAB started in 2007, I discovered FanGraphs. They tracked the Win Expectancy of all games, basically doing the job the spreadsheet did. Since I had switched to a Mac that winter, and since Studes’s spreadsheet didn’t work on Excel 2003 for Mac, I found this a viable solution. Yet there are differences in how FanGraphs calculates Win Expectancy and how the WE Finder does.

The biggest difference between the two is run environment. Some years teams score more runs than others. I’m not sure if the WE Finder adjusts for this, depending on the year range you select, but FanGraphs does. The site uses the most up-to-date Win Expectancy tables, while the WE Finder runs only through the 2006 season. Those all help the accuracy of FanGraphs’s WPA measures.

The final aspect might seem a bit controversial to some, but it’s really not. In the WE Finder, the game begins already slanted to the home team. Since home teams won 54 percent of games between 1977 and 2006, the game starts with the home team having 0.540 WE. That means if they put up a scoreless first, they have a nearly 60 percent WE when coming to bat. This might make sense at first, but after further examination I prefer the FanGraphs method, where the WE starts at 50 percent.

The main question people ask upon hearing this is, “If a home team wins 54 percent of the time, shouldn’t we take that into account?” If we take that into account, however, where do we stop? We know that Johan Santana wins a certain percentage of his games. Why not adjust WPA at the start of the game to reflect this? Why not adjust for day and night games? Weekday and weekend? There are so many pre-game factors involved that it’s best to strip all bias and start everyone on equal footing.

What about those weird graphs?

Above is the WPA graph for World Series Game 6. Pretty boring, eh? If that were a normal game in June, we wouldn’t much care for it. Unfortunately, the WPA graph doesn’t adjust for the home team’s fans’ excitement.

The graph is relatively self-explanatory. The green line tracks the WE as the game goes along. As it draws closer to the bottom, the visiting team has the advantage. As it draws closer to the top, the home team has the advantage.

For a more interesting WPA graph:

Next up: what’s that bar graph at the bottom?

Leverage Index

The concept of clutch hitting has permeated baseball since its inception. Some players rise to the occasion, while others don’t. Until LI, we had no real way of measuring clutch ability. We just worked off anecdotal evidence of of writers and fans touting some players while eviscerating others. With Leverage Index, though, we can determine just how important a situation is, and then how players performed in those situations.

A situation with a LI of 1 is considered average. The higher the number, the more crucial the situation. If the number falls below one, it is considered a relatively unimportant situation. Leverage index considers the base, out, and score situation, so at-bats in the ninth inning of a one-run game will count for much more than a comparable situation in the third.

For example, if the home team has the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the second , down by one run, the LI in that situation is 3.1. The same situation, but in the bottom of the ninth, yields the highest possible LI, 10.9. You can find a full chart of LI by inning/base/out situation in the resources section.

Any questions?

This is the toughest statistic for me explain, because I’m so familiar with it. I’ve been using and examining WPA for almost five years now, so what seem self-evident to me might not to others. Make sure to ask any questions in the comments, or email them to me. I’m more than willing to edit this guide so it’s as accurate and comprehensive as possible when we create our full guide.

Resources

The One About Win Probability
Get to Know: Leverage Index
Crucial Situations: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Leverage Index table
Win Expectancy Finder

Past Trade Review: David Justice

The Yankees were coming off two straight World Championships in 2000, however their offense was lacking compared to the past few seasons. Both Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill were in the middle of their worst offensive seasons with the team, which hurt considerably in the lefthanded power department.

In need of a long ball threat, GM Brian Cashman tried to acquire Sammy Sosa from the Cubs and Juan Gonzalez from the Rangers, however nothing came to fruition. He then turned to Indians’ GM John Hart, who was looking to move the aging David Justice to free up a lineup spot for a pair of up-and-coming mashers named Russell Branyan and Richie Sexson. About a month before the trade deadline, the two sides completed the following deal…

Yankees Received
OF David Justice

Indians Received
RHP Jake Westbrook
RHP Zach Day
OF Ricky Ledee

At the time of the deal, Justice was hitting .265-.361-.582 for the Indians, whacking 21 homers in 68 games. However, he had slumped to .283-.386-.476 in the two prior seasons, and there was concern that a precipitous fall from grace was imminent.

Westbrook, then just 22-years-old and just six months removed from being acquired in the Hideki Irabu trade, appeared in just three games for the Yanks, allowing ten runs and 19 baserunners in 6.2 IP. He bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the majors for the next two years, and didn’t settle into a full-time role with the Indians until 2003. After taking over a rotation spot in mid-July of that year, Westbrook ran off a 13 start stretch in which he posted a 4.14 ERA. His peripherals weren’t good (34 K, 34 BB in 71.2 IP), but Cleveland’s days as a powerhouse were over, and they were looking for any young contributors they could find.

During his first six-plus years in the majors, Westbrook posted a perfectly league average 100 ERA+ in 130 starts and 40 relief appearances, chipping in close to 900 innings. The Indians gave him a big contract extension (three years, $33M) before he could reach free agency, however the team only gets credit for his first six years of control in the trade because that’s all they acquired. They negotiated the extension on their own after the fact. During those years of team control, Westbrook was worth 8.2 wins over a replacement level pitcher.

The 22-year-old Day was the Yanks’ fifth round pick in 1996, and at the time of the trade he had a 2.56 ERA with a 147-46 K/BB ratio in 119.2 IP split between Low-A Greensboro and High-A Tampa. He was one of the team’s better pitching prospects, and Cleveland sent him right to Double-A after the trade. Day never appeared in a single game with the Indians, who instead traded to the Expos straight up for Milton Bradley at the 2001 trade deadline. As you probably figured, Day contributed zero wins over replacement to Cleveland’s cause, though Bradley certainly helped.

Ledee, a 25-year-old platoon outfielder for the Bombers, was hitting .241-.332-.419 with seven homers at the time of the swap. His time with the Indians would be short lived though, as they flipped him to Texas for David Segui a month later. I remember hearing at the time of the trade that Ledee was the first player in history to play for three different teams that won their division the previous season in one year. He contributed just one-tenth of a win over replacement to the Indians’ cause.

As for Justice, he was everything the Yanks could have hoped for and then some. In the first four weeks after the deal, he hit .347-.449-.653 with six homers, and his final line with the Yanks in 2000 was .305-.391-.585 with 20 bombs. All told, Justice was a .286-.377-.584 hitter that season, clubbing a career high 41 homers.

His hot hitting carried into the playoffs, when he hit a solo homer off Kevin Appier in Game Five of the ALDS, pushing the Yanks further out ahead of the A’s and eventually sending them home. Justice completely torched the Mariners in the ALCS, picking up eight RBI in the six games. His three run homer off Arthur Rhodes in the 7th inning of Game Six turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 lead, and the Yanks would eventually hold on for a trip to their third consecutive World Series. His efforts won him ALCS MVP honors, and a few weeks later the Yankees were World Champions.

That fall from grace happened the next season, when Justice hit just .241-.333-.430 with a then-career low 18 homers in 2001. The Yankees did get back to the World Series, though Justice was traded across town to the Mets for Robin Ventura after the season. In his year and a half in pinstripes, Justice provided the Yanks with 3.5 wins over replacement, almost all of which came during the second half of 2000.

Here’s a round up of the WAR data…

As you can see, Cleveland’s haul in the trade was more than twice as valuable as Justice was for the Yanks, almost exclusively thanks to Westbrook. However, just like the Chuck Knoblauch trade, the Yankees got exactly what they wanted out of the deal in the World Series victory.

There we times during the mid-2000’s that the Yankees could have really used an innings eater like Jake Westbrook in their rotation, but I wouldn’t have traded that Subway Series win for it. This one is another win-win; the Indians got six years of a league average big league starter plus more, and the Yanks got another championship. Both sides would do this one over time after time.

Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, AP

New numbers for new players

There’s very little official business left for the Yankees to take care of this offseason. They still have to renew the contracts of their 19 pre-arbitration players, but that should happen in the next week or so. Other than that, it’s just show up for Spring Training, assign numbers to the new guys, and get to work.

During his introductory press conference, we learned that Curtis Granderson would be wearing No. 14, giving some credibility to a number that had been used exclusively for spare parts in recent years. The Yankees did make three other significant additions this offseason, though the numbers Nick Johnson, Javy Vazquez, and Randy Winn will sport in 2010 still aren’t listed on the official site.

However, as astute commenter Mo’s Savant noticed, their numbers are listed in MLB.com’s store, available for customizing a shirt or jersey. Of course these aren’t official, but if you’re like me and find a weird satisfaction in these kind of things, it’s worth mentioning. Let’s run through them one by one.

Nick Johnson: No. 26

NJ wore No. 36 during his first stint in the Bronx, but apparently Edwar Ramirez has too firm a grip on it. I suppose Nick could buy it from him in Spring Training, but I’m guessing it’s not that important to him; he wore No. 24 with the Expos/Nationals , and No. 20 with the Marlins. Jose Molina, who will always hold a special place in my heart as the best backup catcher of the Jorge Posada era, was the last to wear No. 26, and before him it belonged to other backup backstops like Wil Nieves, Koyie Hill, and Sal Fasano. The last significant player to wear the number was Orlando Hernandez during the Dynasty Years.

Photo Credit: Linda Kaye, AP

Javy Vazquez: No. 31

A former Yankee like Johnson, Vazquez wore No. 33 during his one season in pinstripes, and did the same with the White Sox and Braves. During the Expo and Diamondback years, Javy rocked No. 23. Nick Swisher is the proud owner of No. 33, and he went out of his way to get the number from Brian Bruney last year, so I don’t think he’s giving it up anytime soon. So Javy is stuck with No. 31, previously worn by Mike Dunn and Ian Kennedy, and Edwar Ramirez and Aaron Small before them. Dave Winfield was the last big time Yankee to wear the number, though Tim Raines also had it during the late-90’s and Steve Karsay during the early-00’s.

Photo Credit: Matthew Gunby, AP

Randy Winn: No. 22

During his time with the Devil Rays, Mariners, and Giants, Winn had always worn No. 2. Obviously, he’s not getting that as a Yankee. Instead, he doubles up on it and takes No. 22 from the departed Xavier Nady. That number has a prominent place in recent Yankee lore, having been worn by Roger Clemens, Robbie Cano, and Jimmy Key with a few LaTroy Hawkinses and Jon Lieberses mixed in. Jorge Posada even wore it for part of the 1997 season, his first full year in the majors as Joe Girardi‘s backup.

Photo Credit: Chris O’Meara, AP

Unfortunately, we still don’t have numbers for the likes of Boone Logan or Greg Golson, or any of the prospects added to 40-man after the season either. We’re just going to have to wait for camp to open and see what’s on their backs. I’m happy I can finally buy my Nick Johnson shirt, but damn, did they really raise the price of customizable shirts to $36.99? It’s a recession, you know.

Derek Jeter has more power to right than Albert Pujols

For Derek Jeter, taking the ball to right field is an art. Even as I write this sentence, three months removed from live baseball, I can picture the swing. Jeter takes his stride, closes his shoulders, extends his arms, and slaps an outside pitch between the first and second basemen for a single. Sometimes he pokes it down the line for a double. Other times he gets a pitch that catches too much of the plate and he sends it over the short porch in right. No matter the result it still looks pretty, even most of the outs.


Can you guess what this is a picture of?

Thanks to FanGraphs splits, we can see exactly how good Derek Jeter is on balls hit to right field. It comes as no surprise that in 2009 he was excellent. He put 164 balls in play to right field, dunking in 46 for singles, slapping 11 doubles and a triple, and hitting 12 home runs (which, as a reminder, do not count as ball in play). That’s a .398 batting average. Moreover, it’s a .676 SLG, adding up to a .278 ISO and a 1.074 OPS. Those are pretty excellent marks, especially for a right-handed hitter going the opposite way. It made me wonder how other right-handed hitters fared.

The first name that came to mind, of course, was Albert Pujols. He’s been the best player in baseball for a few years now, so I assumed that this resulted from his ability to hit to all fields. Yet, after checking the numbers I was a bit surprised. Yes, Pujols demonstrates power to all fields, and he does hit the ball to left better than right. That’s to be expected. But on ball hit to right field he’s no match for the mighty Jeter. Pujols has a .305 BA against a .537 SLG for an ISO of .232. That’s good, but it’s not Jeter. For our purposes, we’ll conveniently ignore the vast discrepancy in their pull numbers.

What about other prolific righty sluggers? Mark Reynolds of the Diamondbacks posted a .260/.349/.543 line overall, good for a .284 ISO. To right field he posted a .333 BA and a .611 SLG, a .278 ISO that matches Jeter’s. I’d still hand Jeter the edge here 1) because of his BA and 2) because he did it in nearly twice the opportunities — Reynolds had only 91 plate appearances in which he put a ball into right field, while Jeter had 176.

Derrek Lee of the Cubs had a resurgent year, hitting .306/.393/.579 for an ISO of .273. He did demonstrate more power to right than Jeter, posting a .284 ISO in 112 attempts. His batting average fell far below Jeter’s though, at .275. In terms of power, sure, he outhit Jeter. But in terms of overall proficiency, it’s all Derek.

Surprisingly, Jason Bay demonstrated good power to right field in 2009. As a right-handed hitter playing half his games at Fenway, clearly he posted better numbers to left field — a .466 ISO, which is nearly, but not quite, Pujolsian. He also posted a .262 ISO to right field, which lags behind Jeter a bit. Like most other hitters, Bay’s batting average to right wasn’t quite up to par, either, at .262, and he also had only 61 plate appearances in which he hit a ball to right field.

You know who killed the ball to right field? Nelson Cruz. He had 80 plate appearances where he hit a ball to right, and posted a .291 batting average and .646 SLG for a .354 ISO. The power came almost exclusively off home runs, as he hit nine to right. His only other extra base hit was a double. But, again, his sample was less than half of Jeter’s.

Among the more important points here is the ability to frequently take the ball the other way. It’s one thing that Jeter posts monstrous rate stats when hitting the ball to the opposite field. It’s quite another that he does it so often. He actually hit four more balls to right last season than he did to left. It makes me wonder why pitchers continue to work him outside.

To end this on a further high note, Jeter’s career numbers when hitting the ball to right field: .373 BA, .954 OPS, .211 ISO. Pretty damn impressive over a 14-year career.

Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens