2010 Season Preview: Robo-Tex

Centerfield and catcher have historically been the two positions of strength for the Yankees, but first base hasn’t been too shabby either. Long after Lou Gehrig and his .474 career wOBA (!!!) called it quits, we had Don Mattingly winning an MVP in the 80’s, Tino Martinez winning World Championships in the 90’s, and Jason Giambi posting .400+ on-base percentages like nobody’s business in the 00’s. Until last season, Mattingly, Martinez, and Giambi were the only three regular first baseman the Yanks had since 1983.

Mark Teixeira figures to be the regular first baseman well into the 2010’s after signing an eight year, $180M contract last offseason. His first season in pinstripes could not have gone more according to plan; he led the American League in HR (39), RBI (122), and total bases (344) while posting a .402 wOBA, his third consecutive season north of .400. He also solidified the infield defense, making spectacular stops on balls in the hole and saving teammates countless errors by scooping up errant throws around the bag. And, of course, the Yankees won the World Series.

Now that Year One in the Bronx is complete, what does Year Two hold for Big Tex? Well, hopefully more of the same, that’s for sure.

In typical Mark Teixeira fashion, he’s likely to come out of the gate slow. Last season he hit .182-.354-.338 with just six extra base hits and a puny .317 wOBA through his first 99 plate appearances. For his career, Tex is a .249-.349-.433 hitter (.342 wOBA) in March/April, and there’s no reason to expect 2010 to be different. During his introductory press conference, Tex said it takes him longer to get going because he has two swings to work on in Spring Training (one from each side of the plate), which makes sense. With one year in pinstripes under his belt, hopefully the April swoon won’t be so dramatic this season, something more along the lines of his career performance in March/April than last year’s.

Teixeira will turn 30 exactly one week after Opening Day in Boston, so he’s still comfortably in the prime of his career. Since turning 27-years-old, Teixeira has hit .309-.398-.560 with a .403 wOBA for (amazingly) four different teams, and he’s improved his contact rate every year (78.4% in ’07, 83.0% in ’08, 83.5% in ’09) which in turn has helped reduce his strikeout rate to just 11.5%, a phenomenal mark for a power hitter. On top of all of that, Tex has been supremely durable since breaking his ankle at Georgia Tech in 2001, coming to plate at least 575 times every season of his big league career.

We know he’s a stud defensively, and UZR backs that up. Even though he posted a -3.7 UZR in 2009 (which raised some eyebrows), Tex’s three-year UZR is +2.6, much more in line with his real ability (imagine that, a better answer when looking at a larger sample). Anyway, age-adjusted UZR projections peg Teixeira as a one UZR defender in 2010, which is probably a little light. Regardless, we all known how fantastic he is with the leather, and at his age, there’s no reason to expect a defensive decline.

Despite being one of the best all-around players in the game today, one area where Tex really drags the team down is with his baserunning. It’s not that he’s gets caught trying to steal often – he’s been successful in all four stolen base attempts he’s made in the last three years – he’s just generally awful rounding the bases on balls in play. Last year he cost the Yankees 2.67 runs on the bases according to EqBRR, which essentially negated all of the good things Brett Gardner did with his legs. This isn’t a one-year fluke either. He’s been consistently bad throughout his career whenever he’s not holding a bat or wearing a glove, so this is something that’s sure to continue (if not get worse) in 2010. Thankfully, if Tex is going to be bad at something, he picked the part of the game that has the smallest impact in the grand scheme of things.

For such a tremendous player, Teixeira is pretty boring guy to preview. He’s a robot; a player in his prime that’s great at pretty much everything, and there’s every reason in the world to expect another elite season of production out of him in 2010. Let’s see what the projection systems are saying. Remember to click for a larger view.

After posting a .403 wOBA over the last three seasons, the five freely available projection systems (sorry, PECOTA fans) see Teixeira “dropping off” to a .401 wOBA in 2010. Even though the aggregate triple-slash projection is a slight step down from last year, it’s right in line with Tex’s career performance. I suspect his power numbers will be better than the projections think, simply because he’ll come to plate as a lefty in the New Stadium so many times that he’s bound to pick up a few cheapie homers during the course of the season.

So let’s round it all up. If we’re projecting Tex at .401 wOBA, +1 UZR, and -2.5 EqBRR over 654 plate appearances, he’ll essentially be a five win player in 2010 (4.8 WAR, to be exact). It would be a small drop from last season’s 5.2 WAR, but would still be among the best in the game. As I’ve been saying all along, there’s every reason to expect the Yankees’ first baseman to continue to be extremely productive in the coming season.

Photo Credit: Julie Jacobson, AP

Backing up the brittle DH

Updated (9:50 a.m.) When Nick Johnson was scratched from the lineup yesterday afternoon with a sore back, the Yankee Universe let out a collective groan. Here it goes again; the injury bug bites Nick Johnson.

Of course, the injury ended up being nothing very much, and the Yankees say the team is just taking it slow during day two of Spring Training. Nick caught his cleat while taking some swings in the cage, and he could have played had it been the regular season. He’ll sit out a day or two and find himself right back in the lineup this week. Lest we forget, Jorge Posada‘s surgically repaired shoulder was giving everyone conniptions last spring as well. There’s always a sore something somewhere.

But Johnson’s injury got me thinking. What if Nick were to go down? What would the Yankees do with that DH slot? Johnson has been summoned to replace Hideki Matsui as the Yanks’ go-to guy for DH. The team rightly doesn’t want to use the DH as a rotating half-day rest slot for their veterans because that would necessarily force Ramiro Peña or Francisco Cervelli, weak offensive options, into the lineup nearly every day. So Johnson, a high OBP guy with a lefty swing designed for Yankee Stadium, seemed an ideal choice.

In a sense, the Yankees don’t need a lot from Nick Johnson. Hideki Matsui hit .274/.367/.509 with 28 home runs last year in 142 games, and he put up a WAR of 2.7, eighth best in a powerhouse lineup. If Johnson, a 2.5-win player last year, can give the Yanks a pair of wins for $5.5 million, the team will be quite pleased.

A problem emerges, though, if Johnson can’t do that. If he doesn’t make 135 starts, doesn’t get his 500 plate appearances, doesn’t produce a few wins out of the DH slot. If he gets injured and misses significant time, always a distinct possible with him, the Yankees will be out a DH.

Behind Johnson, the options for designated hitter are slim. The team has Randy Winn, Marcus Thames and Jamie Hoffmann in camp fighting for two roster spots. Last year, Winn was a 1.7-win player based on WAR, but that’s because he was 16.5 fielding runs above average. His offensive output — a .302 wOBA with 2 home runs in 538 plate appearances — makes him a non-option for the DH spot. Marcus Thames had a 0.1 WAR last year. No matter how that breaks down, he wasn’t doing much hitter at all. Jamie Hoffmann has played just 72 games at AAA.

Beyond these guys making waves in camp, Juan Miranda would offer the Yanks another lefty option for DH. He’s the first guy called up when the team needs a bat, and as his prodigious home run in Tampa at the end of 2009 showed us, he can certainly hit. He’s a career .280/.366/.474 hitter in the minors and blasted 19 home runs last year at AAA. He isn’t too vulnerable to lefties either, hitting .291/.367/.507 against them in just under 200 ABs last year. His Major League Equivalents don’t scream out success, but he’s an option.

The Yankees do have a rather tantalizing ace in the hole, but would they dare use it? Jesus Montero is, acccording to a video interview he did with YES, working hard to get to the Majors, and by all accounts, he has put on a hitting clinic in batting practice this spring. In his one in-game at-bat, he singled. He has the power and the stick to DH, but the Yanks shouldn’t rush him. He needs his AAA seasoning, and when the 20-year-old shows he can mash at AAA, the Yanks can begin to think about it. In the meantime, the team has three in-house choices, and Gary Sheffield remains a free agent.

For now, we’ll rely on Nick Johnson to carry the designated hitter slot for six months this year. He gets an Interleague Play break when the Yanks hit the NL in May and June, and with Robo-Tex manning first, Johnson won’t be asked to exert himself in the field. He should be able to withstand the pressures of the season, but if any player can’t stay healthy at DH, it’s Nick Jonson. And, please, no more cleats in the batting cages.

Photo by Kathy Willens/AP

The whole picture for the No. 2 hitter

Over the past few days we’ve looked at a few aspects of a quality No. 2 hitter. We want someone who will get on base and set the table for the heart of the order, but who also won’t ground into double plays when the leadoff man reaches. As it turns out, the guy who gets on base more grounds into far more double plays. Will those twin killings hurt the team more than his presence on the base paths helps it?

Since we’re working with the theoretical here I’ll use the Bill James projections, mostly because they assume a greater run environment. We really could have used any system, though, since we need only compare the systems to themselves.

Getting on base for Teixeira

Bill James projects Granderson to reach base in 35.3 percent of his plate appearances, and Johnson to reach in 41.4 percent. To make things easier, we’ll scale this to 600 plate appearances, which lies between each of their projections. That means Johnson would reach 248 times to Granderson’s 212. Beyond the obvious observation that Johnson would reach base 36 more times than Granderson, it also represents some fraction of those 36 where Granderson would end an inning.

That last point, I think, is sometimes overlooked when discussing players reaching base. Clearly, Johnson won’t keep 36 innings going where Granderson would end one. But if that’s true for even a third of them, it’s a dozen innings where Teixeira hits with a man on base rather than starting the next inning with the bases empty. Over his career Teixeira has hit .295/.400/.555 with men on base and .285/.357/.535 with the bases empty. Those dozen situations, then, could lead to a few extra runs over the course of a season.

Keeping Jeter on the base paths

Given the same number of plate appearances, we know Johnson will make fewer outs than Granderson. Unfortunately, sometimes the outs Johnson makes count double. He has come to the plate 594 times in his career facing a double play chance, and has hit into it 72 times, or 12.1 percent of the time. How much, then, does this offset his ability to get on base?

The Bill James projections peg Jeter for 152 singles and 64 walks, or 216 times reaching first base. It also projects him to bat 631 times, so we need to scale down the number to 600 PA, which puts it at 205 times. At a 12.1 percent GIDP rate, Johnson would erase Jeter 26 times. Granderson, however, grounds into a double play just 4.4 percent of the time, so he would erase Jeter only 9 times. That’s 17 additional instances, or 34 additional outs, for Johnson.

We often say that the most important thing a player can do at bat is not make an out. Each team gets only 27 outs per game, and only three before they have to clear the bases and start over, so those outs are the most valuable assets in the game. Using straight OBP in a 600 PA environment, we can expect Johnson to make 352 outs and Granderson 388. Once we add in their twin killings, though, we see that Johnson projects to make 378 outs and Granderson 397 — and that’s just considering Jeter’s instances of reaching first base.

More than one way to think about it

Clearly, the double play situation does not bode well for Johnson. He still projects to make fewer outs than Granderson, but the double plays make that a lot closer. Like all baseball issues, however, there are plenty more ways to look at the comparison.

Yes, Johnson might erase Jeter in 26 of the 205 times he reaches first base. No one wants to see that. But the flip side presents the number of times both Jeter and Johnson will reach base. Scaled to 600 PA, Jeter figures to reach base, but not hit a home run, 237 times. Holding consistent Johnson’s .414 OBP, that means that 98 times Teixeira will come to the plate either with both Jeter and Johnson on base, or otherwise with Johnson on base with Jeter sitting on the bench and a run on the board. With Granderson that figure falls to 84 instances.

Granderson, however, has a bit more power than Johnson right now. Scaled to 600 PA, Granderson projects to hit 51 extra base hits, which represents 8.5 percent of his plate appearances. Then again, Johnson projects to hit 49 extra base hits when scaled to 600 PA, so it might not be that big a difference. The enormous caveat here is that we’re scaling down Granderson’s and scaling up Johnson’s. I know it shouldn’t make a huge difference, but I feel a bit more comfortable with the former.

What about their results once they’ve reached base? According to Baseball Prospectus’s EQBRR, Granderson added 1.9 runs on the base paths. That doesn’t seem like a huge amount, especially for a player with his speed. Then again, his OBP fell to .330, which certainly plays a part. In 2008, when his OBP was .365, Granderson generated 5.8 runs on the base paths. Johnson was worth -2.1 runs on the bases, which doesn’t seem that bad considering his lack of speed. Still, we’re looking at something like a seven-run swing at 600 PA.

So who hits second?

From all indications, it’s Johnson. At this point, with a clean slate, I think that’s the right call. Even when factoring in double plays he makes fewer outs than Granderson, which means more opportunities to hit with men on base for Teixeira and A-Rod. At the outset that should be the No. 1 concern.

Of course, if the DPs become a problem, they could consider a swap. Granderson doesn’t figure to be a black hole in the two hole by any stretch. He can get around the bases, and he won’t erase Jeter too many times. But with the presence of Johnson on the roster, he’s the second best man for the job.

Open Thread: Tape delayed

The Yankees already played today, but MLB Network tape delayed the broadcast until tonight. I won’t ruin the outcome for you, but CC Sabathia faced Roy Halladay. If you’re not going to watch the game, the Rangers and Isles are both playing live tonight. Anything goes, so have fun.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Brett Gardner is one to watch for

Over at ESPN’s new and entertaining (but poorly named) The Max Info blog, Yankee fan and RAB reader Katie Sharp named leftfield favorite Brett Gardner the Yankees’ player to watch for the 2010 season (Insider req’d). She points out that Gardner had by far the best speed score (9.2, a metric developed by Bill James that considers things like stolen base percentages, triples, etc) of any batter with at least 250 plate appearances last season, and that his 16% infield hit rate was tied for Ichiro as the best in the business. As soon as he improves his bunting, I’m hopeful that number will go up even more.

I don’t think Gardner’s quite as good defensively as his small sample UZR suggest, but he’s obviously very good. If he can work his way into being a non-zero offensive player out of the nine-hole, then I’ll take it every day of the week.

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 4:20pm ET. 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.

The art of terrorizing pitchers

Even before Moneyball helped make the importance of on-base percentage mainstream, the Yankees were building their lineups around patient hitters that worked deep counts and saw a ton of pitches. The idea was to wear down the opposing starter as quickly as possible, then go to town on the inferior relief pitchers. Then-GM Gene Michael acquired players like Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs in the early-90’s for this very reason, for their ability to work the count and grind away during an at-bat.

The Yanks’ lineup is still very much designed this way, as GM Brian Cashman has imported patient hitters like Bobby Abreu, Nick Swisher and Nick Johnson in recent years. As a team, the Yankees hit .281-.352-.471 with a .365 wOBA against starting pitchers last season, but once the bullpen door opened, forget it. They hit .286-.377-.487 with a .374 wOBA against relievers in 2009, which essentially means the team turned into nine Victor Martinezes once the opposition’s relief corps came into play. It also helped that they had more plate appearances against relief pitchers than any other American League team last year (table on the right), a function of wearing down the starters.

But last year’s team is different than this year’s team. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui will not be in the lineup, and to a lesser extent the same could be said about Melky Cabrera. They’ll be replaced by Johnson, Curtis Granderson, and some mash-up of the Brett Gardner, Randy Winn, Marcus Thames, Jamie Hoffmann quartet. Damon and Matsui combined to see exactly four pitches per plate appearance in 2009, while Johnson and Granderson combined to see 4.42 pitches per plate appearance. The latter didn’t have the same kind of lineup support either.

Looking at the chart to the left, the Yankees’ eight projected regulars (not counting the unsettled LF situation) going into 2010 averaged just under four pitches seen per plate appearance last year, which quite frankly is a ton.  You’re talking about more than 35 pitches thrown to just the first eight batters each time through the order. Depending on who’s playing left on a given day, you could add another 3.75-4.00 pitches to that total. Now we’re talking about close to 39 pitches seen each time through the order. Simple math tells us that on average, the other team’s starting pitcher will have thrown about 117 pitches if he was lucky enough to make it through the order a third time

Seeing lots of pitches is nice, and it’s important to remember that the whole point of seeing all those pitches is to tire the other team’s starting pitcher. The more tired he is, the less effective and more prone to making mistakes he’ll be. The sooner that happens, the quicker the bullpen has to join in on the action. There’s a reason middle relievers are middle relievers, and that’s because they aren’t good enough to do anything else. Pounding away on the soft underbelly of the opposition has been the Yankees’ M.O. since before most of us were born.

Yesterday’s walk-off win in the exhibition opener reminded us just how wonderful the 2009 season was. You’ll need two hands and a foot to count the number of walk-off wins they had, and a lot of that had to do with the Yankees ability to wear down opposing starters and get into the bullpen much sooner than the other team would like. As good as Damon and Matsui were for the Yankees, Granderson and Johnson are an even better fit for the lineup. I’m not saying they’ll rip off 15 walk-off wins again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they improved upon last year’s .295-.379-.511 batting line (.383 wOBA) and +116 run differential from the seventh inning on in 2010.

Photo Credit: Roberto Borea, AP