Sticking the new guy in left field

Spring Training doesn’t officially start until later this week — tomorrow to be exact — but already, most players have descended upon Tampa. The core of the Yankee team is already working out at the team’s minor league complex, and the reporters are starting to settle into their Spring Training routines. Some semblance of order is returning to this crazy time we call the Hot Stove League.

In Tampa, all eyes are on the new guys, and that obsession thrusts Curtis Granderson, who just wants to fit in, into the spotlight. Other than the return of Javier Vazquez to serve as the team’s fourth starter, Granderson is the biggest acquisition, and he’s being asked to replace Johnny Damon in the lineup. Considering Damon’s departure involved stealing two bases on one play and being lauded as a key offensive piece to the Yanks, that’s no small feat.

So after an off-season during which we obsessed over left field and searched for ways the Yanks could fill a left field gap, the reporters asked Curtis Granderson about his take on the corner slot. Maybe he’ll be the one to take it, he said to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. “People forget that I came up as a left fielder,” Granderson said yesterday. “In the Minor Leagues all the way up to Double-A, I didn’t start playing center field consistently until my second year in the Minors. Even when I came to the big leagues, I played a few games in left. I have no problem going back over there if that happens to be.”

It seems so simple, but does it make sense for the Yanks? In essence, the team would be shifting Brett Gardner to center field while deploying Curtis Granderson as the left fielder. On days in which the Yanks are facing a lefty and want to rest Gardner, they can slide Granderson to center and use Randy Winn, Marcus Thames or someone else in left. Granderson is versatile enough and comfortable enough to make the move.

The numbers too bear out this alignment. Playing his home games in spacious Comerica Park, Granderson has generally been an above-average center fielder. He put up double-digit UZR totals in 2006 and 2007 before slipping below 0 in 2008. He rebounded last year with a 1.6 mark, and we can assume that he would be as good if not better covering ground in left. Brett Gardner meanwhile has shined as a center fielder. In limited duty, he put up a 9.5 mark in 2008 and a 7.2 mark in 2009.

As for the guys they would be replacing, a duo of Granderson in left and Gardner in center would far outshine Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera. Damon, after two disastrous years in center with the Yanks, had an above-average full-season showing in 2008 as a left fielder but saw his UZR slip to -9.2 in 2009. Melky, meanwhile, put up a 0.6 mark in center in 2008 and a 1.4 mark in 2009. Even assuming just a duplication of their 2010 numbers, the Gardnerson/Gardner duo would be nearly 9 defensive runs above average while the Cabrera/Damon duo would be just under -8 defensive runs below average.

The wild card in these moves remains Brett Gardner’s offense. The Yankees won’t ask Curtis Granderson to move to left if they don’t believe Gardner can hold down a starting job for long enough, and the team might not ask Granderson to move if their plan includes pursuing Carl Crawford after he hits free agency next winter. After all, they might not want Granderson to be bouncing back and forth between the outfield slots for one year with a more certain solution just around the corner.

With run prevention the next frontier in baseball analysis and team-building, the Yankees are bound to give many outfield permutations a good hard look in Spring Training. When Opening Day rolls around, no one should be surprised if the solution to the Johnny Damon hole had been around since early December after all.

The differences between Joba 2008 and Joba 2009

For about eight weeks during the 2008 season, Joba Chamberlain displayed dominance as a starter. After spending the first 60 some-odd innings of his big league career in the bullpen, the Yankees transitioned him to the rotation in June and there seemed to be only a routine drop-off in performance. His fastball still blew away hitters, and his slider still dropped off the table. It appeared the Yankees might see another homegrown star. Unfortunately, after 65.1 innings in the rotation Joba’s shoulder gave a bit, ending his 2008 stint in the rotation. After the season, however, Brian Cashman showed unquestioned faith in his 2006 draft pick, saying that only he and Chien-Ming Wang were guaranteed rotation spots in 2009.

As we remember all too well, Joba’s second season in the rotation didn’t go quite as well as the first. For starters, his fastball lost 2.5 miles per hour, the biggest loss in the majors among pitchers with 50 innings in 2008 and 2009. He seemed tentative on the mound, constantly shaking off Jorge Posada. In many instances he shook his head until Posada signaled for slider, especially in 3-2 counts. But the slider didn’t appear to have the bite we saw over the past two years.

Even still, he managed to pitch decently through July. At that point the Yankees tried two techniques in order to limit Joba’s workload, though neither seemed to take. That might have been a result of the uncertainty he faced, but it also might have been because he’d never pitched so many innings in a regular season. In any case, his performance did decline in the season’s final two months, his ERA inflating by more than a full run over that period. Clearly, something had changed.

Last week we looked at how Phil Hughes changed over the years. Now it’s Joba’s turn. What changes, other than fastball velocity, did he realize in 2009?

As regards his fastball, it appears that velocity is all he lost. In terms of movement he remained the same. In 2008 his fastball broke 4.4 inches towards right-handed batters (compared to a pitch with no spin), compared to 4.2 inches in 2009. His vertical movement was almost exactly the same as well, 10.0 inches in 2008 and 9.9 inches in 2009. He might not have been throwing it as hard, but velocity isn’t everything. His vertical movement remains comfortably above league average, though his horizontal movement remains below.

His bread and butter, the slider, did appear to have changed from 2008 to 2009. It did lose some velocity, about .08 mph, or about one percent. By comparison, his fastball velocity decreased by about three percent. In 2007 and 2008 Joba’s slider seemed to travel about 5/6 of the way to the plate and then drop at the last second. The 2007 PitchFx data is rough, but we can see the effect in 2008. Joba’s slider dropped 0.9 inches, while a league average slider “rose” 2.8 inches. In 2009 his slider had an inch less drop, at 0.1 “rise” compared to a league average of 2.3. So not only did Joba’s vertical movement rise, but the league average dropped.

As we know, pitchers employ different kinds of sliders. While some break primarily on the vertical plane, like Joba’s in 2008, others move side to side. In 2008 Joba didn’t generate much side to side movement, just 0.8 inches against a league average of 2.1 inches. In 2009 it appears Joba changed styles, as his slider broke 2.1 inches horizontally, against a league average of 2.4. The Texas Leaguers Pitch f/x tool says Joba got 18.3 percent swings and misses on his slider in 2009, compared to 26.2 percent as a starter in 2008.

Joba’s other secondary pitch, his curveball, also saw diminished movement in 2009. The horizontal break remained consistent, 4.1 against a league average of 5.1 in 2009 and 4.2 against a 5.3 league average in 2009. In terms of vertical break, however, it wasn’t nearly the same. In 2008, when he started working it into his arsenal as a starter, the pitch dropped 6.7 inches, a full two inches better than the league average.

My question is how to evaluate the pitch’s effectiveness. It’s not necessarily a swing and miss pitch like the slider, so whiff rate isn’t the only factor. In that regard, however, he did a bit better in 2009, inducing a swing and miss 14.9 percent of the time, compared to 5.6 percent as a starter in 08. He didn’t throw it as often for a strike, though, 55.9 percent in 2009 against 58.7 percent in 2008. Hitters swung at it more often in 2009, however, 34.3 percent against 23.8 percent in 2008. Might the greater vertical break in 2008 have fooled more hitters, causing them to look at more strikes?

(I was hoping that Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/x Tool could tell us, but it appears to not be loading 2008 data. Drat.)

When we discuss Joba Chamberlain 2009 season, the topic often centers on his fastball. While his reduced velocity did cause concern, his pitches still broke in a similar manner. What might be more concerning is the change he saw in his secondary pitches. The breaks on his slider and curveball changed in 2009, and as we saw in the case of the slider, it led to fewer swings and misses. It appears Joba has a lot to work on for the 2010 season. Thankfully, he showed up early to get a head start.

Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Open Thread: Granderson vs. Soriano

From all accounts, Curtis Granderson sounds like a really good guy. He always seems to have something positive to say. It came as no surprise, then, when he said that he has no problem playing left field if the Yankees choose to deploy Brett Gardner in center. And why would he? Center and left field are separated by a matter of yards. I’m sure Granderson can make the necessary adjustments when reading the ball off the bat.

When I read this story, I thought of the situation the Nationals faced in Spring Training 2006. In December 2005 they acquired Alfonso Soriano from the Rangers, even though they had Jose Vidro entrenched at second base. The plan, apparently, was to move Soriano to left field. He threw a hissy fit of sorts, refusing at first to make the switch. Apparently the Rangers also broached the topic of a position change, but were also met with resistance. Eventually, faced with the choice of playing left field or being placed on the disqualified list, which would have made him inactive without pay, Soriano acquiesced.

While changing outfield spots is a bit different than moving from the infield to the outfield, it’s quite nice to have the player quickly agree to such a move. Really, though, the player doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have much say in the matter. His contract doesn’t designate his position. It merely makes him part of the team. It’s at the team’s discretion where he plays. Clearly there are exceptions — I can see a player’s point if he signs a free-agent contract with a team, only to have them sign another player at the same position and expect the former player to move. But, for the most part, players are at the mercy of their employers’ decisions.

With that, this is your open thread for the evening. It looks like the Olympics are your only sporting choice. The NBA is off following the All-Star game, and the NHL players are all in Vancouver.

2010 Draft: Baseball America’s Early Projection

As part of their Early Draft Preview, Baseball America posted the first of what will be many projected first rounds today (subs. req’d). They have Las Vegas wunderkind Bryce Harper going first overall, and the Yanks taking Southern California high school outfielder Austin Wilson 32nd overall. They say that “he might have the best body in the draft,” but as a Stanford commit, he’s going to be a very tough sign. Keith Law sheds some more light on Wilson at ESPN’s MLB Draft Blog (sorry, another subs. req’d), saying that he’s a “below-average runner and showed only an average arm with below-average accuracy, so he’s primarily a bat who should profile in an outfield corner.”

Projections this early do nothing more than provide entertainment value. Trying to slot players with teams this far in advance is practically impossible, so don’t get to attached to Wilson. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that BA has Rice shortstop Rick Hague going 16th overall. Why do you care? Because three years ago I used my fourth round pick (#154 overall) to take Hague in John Sickels’ mock draft. I’m not normally one to toot my own horn, but toot toot.

Who has options left?

At MLB Trade Rumors, Tim runs down his list of players who are out of options. My only issue is that it covers players not on the 40-man roster. The only way option status affects those players is if they make the team out of spring training, and then the team later wants to option the player. Since we’re not thinking quite that far ahead yet, we can just look at the 40-man and determine who has options and who does not. Remember, too, that a player who was added to the 25-man roster three years ago must clear waivers before being sent on an optional assignment.

For the Yankees, Tim lists Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre as optionless players. Edwar Ramirez also appears to be out of options, but he might have one left. The Yankees certainly used options in 2007 and 2009. In 2008 they optioned him to AAA Scranton to start the season, but recalled him on April 18, sent him down the next day, and recalled him for good on April 29. Boone Logan is another case to examine a bit further. The Yankees were granted a fourth option for Juan Miranda, so he can start the season in Scranton as well.

Cervelli reveals Winter Ball injury

Sometime around third or fourth grade, one of my friends at a baseball after-school program had a rather unfortunate meeting with a baseball bat. He wasn’t paying close attention to the guy on deck, and the backswing clocked him squarely in the mouth. He lost his two front teeth but lived to tell the tale. Today, we find out that something similar happened to Frankie Cervelli. In a piece that cover some familiar ground — lost eight pounds; best shape of his life; yadda, yadda, yadda — Anthony McCarron reports that Cervelli sat out a month of winter ball after getting hit in the head with a bat.

Cervelli said he was hit while behind the plate by another player’s backswing, and although he did not suffer a concussion, the Yanks asked him to sit out the rest of the Venezuelan winter ball season. “Nothing bad,” Cervelli said of the accident. “No concussion. I came here to check my head and the doctors said no action for a month. The Yankees said no more and you pay attention, that’s it.” The de facto back-up catcher is back up to full speed and is practicing at the Yanks’ minor league complex in Tampa. All’s well that ends well.

Out of left field: When the Yanks acquired A-Rod

A-Rod greets the New York press on February 17, 2004. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Do you remember Valentine’s Day 2004? For many, it was just another Valentine’s Day, a Saturday in February, but for Yankee fans, it was a big day for that was the day we first heard about the Yankees’ interest in Alex Rodriguez. I remember hearing the rumors and being completely unsurprised by them. The Yanks gave up Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias for A-Rod. It was a steal.

Today — February 15 — marks the six-year anniversary of the trade. The rumors erupted on Valentine’s Day, and by the next day, A-Rod was a Yankee, pending approval by the Commissioner. What struck me about the trade at the time was just how under-the-table it was. The Yanks targeted their guy and landed him before anyone really knew what was going on. In a way, it was similar to this year’s acquisition of Javier Vazquez in that no one knew it was happening or who was involved until the trade was complete.

For A-Rod, though, it wasn’t the first time that winter his name had come up. After the 2003 World Series ended and the Yankees and Red Sox looked to reload in anticipation of an October rematch, the early stories focused around A-Rod. Boston had grown tired of Manny Ramirez’s act and had placed him on waivers. The team later had a deal in place to acquire A-Rod for Manny Ramirez. The superstar short stop would have to give up some money, but the Red Sox had their guy. Boston then would have shipped Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox in exchange for Magglio Ordoñez to replace Manny.

The Players Union, however, didn’t see things the Red Sox’s way. The union quashed the deal over the restructuring of A-Rod’s contract. They didn’t want their marquee earner to give up guaranteed money, and so that deal was dead in the water. A-Rod would remain with Texas.

And then, February arrived and with it came a trade Jack Curry described as a “surprise move.” The Yankees would acquire A-Rod and all that came with him. He had his obsession with New York, his chilly relationship with Derek Jeter, his contract, his desire for attention and his prodigious ability and power. He would slide over to third base, and the Yankees would have two future Hall of Famers on the left side of the infield.

As the trade stories unfolded, it appeared as though the February move was a second chance for the Yanks. Tyler Kepner and Murray Chass reported of a phone call between the Rangers and Yankees just hours after the Marlins won the World Series. “On Oct. 26, about 12 hours after the Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins, Rangers officials called Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman to gauge his interest in trading for Rodriguez,” the two wrote. “Irritated by the timing and confident in his own star shortstop, Derek Jeter, Cashman passed.”

In Boston, fans were disappointed by the Yanks’ moves, and Mets’ fans felt jilted too. A-Rod was the one who got away. For his part, A-Rod said all the right things. ”To me, it was a very easy decision,” he said. ”To me, this came down to winning. Over the last three years, I’ve come to understand that winning is something I respect a lot. It was an easy decision. Hopefully, after today, it will be a dead issue. Derek Jeter is the captain of this team, and I’m going to follow his leadership.”

But the Yankees’ fans were less accepting. Words uttered by Reggie Jackson came back to haunt us all. ‘I’m taking for granted that A-Rod is a performer in the month of October,” Mr. October said in February. Of course, from Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS through the 2007 playoffs, A-Rod would come to symbolize not the Yanks’ successes in October but their high-price failures.

It would, in a way, take until 2009 for Yankee fans to truly embrace A-Rod. He suffered through an ill-timed decision to opt out of his contract, steroid allegations and a bad injury. But by the end of this past year, he was a playoff hero, the guy the Yanks wanted up every time. It all started six years ago today when the A-Rod Era kicked off.