Hank speaketh and Derek benefiteth

Since Hank Steinbrenner outbid himself for the services of Alex Rodriguez, the Yanks’ General Partner has been generally silent. He hasn’t tried to erupt at the media, and his brother Hal has emerged as the public face of the franchise. Still, now and then, Hank speaks, and we cringe a bit. Yesterday, that’s exactly what happened.

In an interview with AP on Thursday, Hank spoke generally about the Yankees. He thinks the Yanks are going to repeat; he likes the additions of Nick Johnson and Javier Vazquez; yadda, yadda, yadda. They are the typical comments of a General Partner on the eve of Spring Training.

One thing that Hank said bears a little bit of scrutiny, though. When asked about Derek Jeter‘s impossible-to-ignore pending free agency, Hank had a few words to share. “We’ll get into all of that eventually,” Steinbrenner told AP. “Jeter’s place in Yankee history is obvious, so I think you can pretty much assume from there.”

Ah, yes, let’s make some assumptions based upon what Derek Jeter has done over the course of his career. We knew this was coming, and Jeter probably deserves the payday that awaits him. However, it’s tough for the Yankees on a budget to justify this future expenditure to such an extreme degree.

Once or twice this winter, we’ve looked at Derek Jeter’s career and his contract status. We saw him win a fifth World Series ring, and we heard false rumors of an impending three-year extension. We know that Derek Jeter is a shortstop with a career OPS+ of 121 and a batting line of .317/.388/.459 who sits on the edge of 3000 hits. He will get paid.

When Johnny Damon and the Yankees seemingly finalized their divorce, Damon spoke about how he hopes the Yanks don’t treat Jeter the same way they treated him. Of course, that was a bit of hyperbole on Damon’s behalf because the Yanks were never attached to Damon the same way they are connected to Jeter. They won’t throw out Jeter with the bathwater as they did Damon. He will get his due.

The bigger question right now isn’t an “if”; it’s a “should.” The Yankees have millions of dollars committed to Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira. The latter two make up a core of players at the right age playing out their peak years with the Yankees, and A-Rod, while older than we’d like, is still a great player. Now they have to figure out how to approach the old guard as Jeter and Mariano Rivera will be without contracts in 10 months, with Jorge Posada following a year later.

We know that the Yankees will reward these players. We know the team will spend what it takes to keep them around. We know the trio will see the dollars flow their way when the time comes. But the Yankees, as with any other business, operate with a business and with a goal in mind. Does signing Derek Jeter to an above-market deal make sense in that regard? Probably not. Yet, he will get paid. After all, Hank said so.

Nick Johnson and the almighty fastball

As I was perusing Buster Olney’s blog yesterday morning during my daily reading, something caught my eye and piqued my interest. He wrote about Orlando Hudson and how he could be a good fit for Minnesota, where he would likely hit second with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau backing him up. Long story short, Olney pointed out that Hudson is a good fastball hitter, and he would see more fastballs hitting in front of Mauer and Morneau, therefore it would be a good signing for the Twins.

What caught my attention were the numbers he provided about the percentage of fastballs seen by each team’s number two hitter last season. The second spot in the Yankees’ lineup saw 69.1% fastballs in 2009, the fourth most in baseball and slightly more than the aforementioned Twinkies. Johnny Damon has always been a good fastball hitter, so it’s no surprise that had such a strong offensive season. FanGraph’s pitch values say that his bat was worth 0.53 runs above average per 100 fastballs last year, down a tick from 2008 (1.11) but right in line with his 2006 and 2007 performances (both 0.58).

However Johnny is long gone now, replaced in the two hole by new-old Yankee Nick Johnson, who will assume control the cushiest lineup spot in the game: hitting behind Derek Jeter and ahead of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. While he may not see seven fastballs out of every ten pitches like that spot did in 2009, chances are he’ll see more than the 61.4% fastballs thrown to him last season. And that’s good news, because Nick Johnson straight up murders fastballs.

While Damon’s bat has been worth just over half-a-run above average against the old number one in three of the last four years, Johnson’s hasn’t dipped below 1.17 runs above average. I tried to put the difference between Damon and Johnson into words, but I failed in two attempts, so I’m going to cop out and use a table. Check this stuff out…

(wFB is runs above average, /C is per 100 pitches)

Even though he missed all of 2007 and most of 2008 with a busted leg, Johnson still generated more runs above average against fastballs than Damon over the last four years. It’s not even close either. On a rate basis, he’s produced close two runs above average for every 100 fastballs seen, more than double Damon’s output. If NJ sees anywhere near the amount of fastballs this year that the Yanks’ number two hitter saw last year, holy schnikees is he going to do some damage.

Obviously there’s many more factors that go into the number of fastballs a hitter sees, more than I care to account for. Will Jeter get on base more than 40% of the time in front of the number two hitter again next year? What about the nine hitters, will they combine to get on base less than 31% of the time again? Those are the great unknowns, and they’ll all affect the number of fastballs thrown Johnson’s way in 2010. The important part is that in one of the better fastball spots in the lineup, the Yankees now have a tremendous fastball hitter, one that’s far better than Damon ever was.

The massive upgrade in on-base percentage is reason enough to salivate over the idea of Johnson hitting second next year, all of this fastball stuff is just icing on the cake. Johnny Damon did a fantastic job as the Yankees’ number two hitter last year, but Nick Johnson could be even better in 2010.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP

Open Thread: An RAB meme dictionary

We get lots of requests from our readers, but perhaps none more than people asking for some sort of RAB meme dictionary. In close to three years of existence, RAB and it’s comments have sort of taken on a mind of their own, and someone new to the site or venturing into the comment section for the first time is probably a bit intimidated by the amount of jargon and inside jokes being thrown around.

So yes, I’m finally going to create a meme dictionary. Don’t worry, I’ll give it a cooler title, but that’s something to worry about later. What I’m looking for from you guys is a little help putting this thing together. Specifically, I’m looking for a) the meme, b) what it means, and c) the origin with a link (if possible). For example:

IETC: “I enjoyed this comment.” Possible variations include, but are not limited to IETCVM (I enjoyed this comment very much), IETT (I enjoyed this tweet), and IETOMQ (I enjoyed this obscure movie quote).

TWSS: “That’s what she said.” Same as the dirty old man joke.

So, leave whatever you have in the comments, and I’ll compile it all and post it in the near future. Trust me, it’s more work than you may think, so thank you in advance for your help.

Otherwise, use this as your open thread for the evening. The Rangers and Isles are playing (not each other), and Venezuela is taking on the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Series, which you can see on MLB Network. No Yankees or Yankee farmhands are playing, but hey, it’s baseball. Enjoy the thread.

FOX set to air seven Yankee games in ’10

The good folks at FOX have released their 2010 slate of baseball games, and for Yankee fans who have no desire to hear more of Tim McCarver and Joe Buck than is necessary, the news is not comforting. The Yankees will appear on FOX seven times this season, and two of those games will be dreaded Saturday night baseball games. I can think of few people with whom I would rather not spend my Saturday night than McCarver and Buck.

“We’ve been thinking about taking a few of our afternoon dates to prime time dates for quite some time now, and this season’s schedule is so strong that the time seemed right,” FOX Sports President Ed Goren said in a press release. “There is still no platform that has the reach of prime time broadcast television.”

I personally can’t stand Saturday night baseball games. Especially during the summer months, baseball is a game meant to be played during the day on weekends under the bright sun and a blue sky. Maybe that’s the romantic baseball nostalgia in me talking, but I’d rather spend my weekend days watching games and my weekend nights doing something else entirely. As always, baseball has put itself and its game start times at the mercy of its TV partners.

Anyway, mini-rant aside, these are your Yankees games set to appear on FOX this year. All games are on Saturdays and start at 4:05 p.m. unless otherwise noted: April 10 @ Tampa Bay (3:05 p.m.); April 24 @ Angels; May 8 at Boston (3:05 p.m.); May 22 @ Mets (7:05 p.m.); June 26 @ Dodgers (7:05 p.m.); July 17 vs. Tampa Bay; and August 7 vs. Boston. The full MLB on FOX schedule can be found right here.

Joba and Hughes to the pen!

Yesterday, the debate began all over again, as if we hadn’t made our arguments a hundred times over. With just one open spot in the starting rotation, either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain will start the season in the bullpen. Ben tackled the topic yesterday, noting how Joba is saying all the right things — and doing them, too, as he’s in camp early. What he didn’t do is link to a Joel Sherman column about how the Yankees have supposedly already pegged Joba for the pen. He took the idea one step further, into pretty crazy territory.

Why not put both Joba and Hughes in the pen? That would, he claims, make the role of fifth starter even less necessary, because of the Yankees’ high-powered offense and, with both young pitchers in tow, their lights out bullpen. He at least admitted that it would hinder the development of either one into a future starter. With Andy Pettitte‘s and Javy Vazquez‘s contracts up after this season, the Yankees will need one, if not both, to hit the rotation in 2011.

While many of us just wrote off the idea as crazy, Dave Pinto, creative as he is, proposed a different type of idea. What if, instead of using Hughes and Chamberlain as one-inning setup men, the Yankees deployed them as bridges to Mariano unto themselves? In other words, they take over when the starter exits, and they pitch from that point until the ninth. If the Yankees rack up the score late, they could even pitch the ninth themselves, further increasing their innings totals.

In theory, I love the idea. I’ve long advocated changing the way teams use their bullpens, with a trend towards the multi-inning reliever. Having two pitchers in this role would help, as they could cover most late-inning situations, with the short relievers taking over when the starter goes seven and the game is close. But this is all theoretical. How would this work in practice?

April seems like the best opportunity for this type of bullpen scheme. Pitchers are still getting into the groove, and it seems like starters pitch fewer innings per start in April than any other month. That was true, at least, for the Yankees. Last April the Yankees starters pitched 126.1 innings, out of 197.1 total. That includes Wang’s three short starts, so it skews the sample in a way, but if the Yankees use both Hughes and Chamberlain in the bullpen they’ll have a fifth starter who, while not as bad as 2009 Wang, still probably won’t go shutting out opponents for eight innings.

In nine of the 22 starts, the starter did not make it out of the sixth inning. In an additional three starts, the starter went exactly six innings. These are the opportunities for the super relievers. Either Hughes or Chamberlain would enter in this situation and pitch up to, perhaps including, the ninth inning. As an experiment, let’s see how this could have panned out in April 2009, ignoring that some of the starts were made by Hughes and Chamberlain themselves.

Obviously this is a very rough estimate of when and how much they could pitch, and clearly the 2010 innings will not go the same as 2009. Using that as a guideline, however, it appears that in the super relief role, Hughes and Joba could get close to the number of innings they’d get as starters. Not quite to that level — Joba pitched 23 innings in April 2009 — but it would be pretty close. Plus, since they’ll prepare in spring training as starters, their arms can probably handle longer stints earlier in the year.

This accomplishes a few things. First, it reduces the need for a 12-man pitching staff. With Joba, Hughes, and Mo covering almost 50 innings in relief, the Yanks shouldn’t need four other guys to cover the rest. Second, it allows them both to keep their innings up while also keeping them manageable. It would be much easier to keep Hughes under his innings limit if deployed in this manner. Third, it keeps them ready to fill in if a starter goes down — or if the fifth starter just isn’t working out.

Again, this is all theoretical. We have no way of knowing if this scheme can come close to working in practice. Can both pitchers adjust to this usage schedule, pitching two to four inning stints every three or four days? Also, what happens if the Yanks’ starters dominate one turn through the rotation? That might mean one inning each for Joba and Hughes over five days. There’s plenty of unpredictability in this model, and the Yankees might not favor that for their young starters.

The risk involved probably makes this idea a nonstarter, but it certainly has merits. It allows young pitchers to transition from AAA to the majors without jumping in as full-time starters. It allows teams to more easily manage their innings. It keeps them stretched out, so they can jump into a rotation spot in case of injury. But it also hasn’t really been done, at least to my knowledge, in recent years, and we don’t know what kind of effect these usage patterns will have on a pitcher’s arm. Maybe some small-market team will try this one day. Until then, I doubt a team like the Yankees will take any path except the traditional.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Teixeira among the NCAA’s best of the decade

Baseball America put together a list of college baseball’s All-Decade Team, and as you can imagine it features several prominent big leaguers and some big time prospects. Current Yankee and former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Mark Teixeira made the squad, but not as the first baseman. He played third in college (and early in his pro career), hit .427-.547-.772 with a 23-67 K/BB ratio and 18 homers in 66 games his final year (yawn), and was voted as the NCAA’s best at the hot corner in the aughts. Tex also finished third in the Player of the Decade voting, coming in just behind Buster Posey but a mile behind Dustin Ackley.

The only other player with Yankee ties to make an appearance is Scott Bittle, who was the team’s second round pick in 2008 and got some consideration for the Reliever of the Decade spot. He, of course, did not sign with the Yanks.

How well do you know your 2009 Yankees?

If you’re looking to kill some time at the office, or are just bored at school, then take this quiz to see if you can name every player who played for the Yankees in 2009 in under six minutes. I missed just one stinkin’ relief pitcher, and it made me hate him even more. Once you finish, tell us how you did in the comments. But don’t cheat, I’m sure there will be some spoilers in the thread.