Remembering the very forgettable replacements

As part of the spate of baseball books that hit shelves this year, Chris Donnelly’s Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History arrived in my mailbox last week, and I launched into it last night. The book, which I’ll review when I’m through with it, takes place in a different era than the one we know today. Some of the names — Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey — still resonate in the game in 2010, but in 1995, the game had reached a nadir.

For months, there was no baseball. It is almost inconceivable now to imagine that the owners and players would be at such loggerheads as to allow a strike to happen, but as the owners pushed for a salary cap and the players resisted, baseball ended on August 12, 1994. I was 11 and devastated. That Yankee team was the best of my early fandom years, and when the World Series was canceled, the team and its fans were heartbroken.

As the days ticked on, the owners and players remained at a stalemate, and teams could not afford to sacrifice the season. Enter the replacement players. In an effort to field any sort of baseball team, the owners began the hunt for non-union players who would be willing to cross picket lines for a professional baseball paycheck or a dream fulfilled. As February neared, teams refused to unveil their assembled rosters of replacement players.

The first conflict to come up arose with the managers and coaches. These men were not players union members and were employees of their owners. Fiercely loyal to their players, as Buck Showalter explained, the on-field coaching staff members had to decide between their boss and their players. Most of them reluctantly went to Spring Training, hoping for a quick end to the strike. On the eve of Spring Training, Showalter did not have high hopes for his rag-tag bunch of players.

So who were these guys better suited to softball leagues than Spring Training fields, resembling the Bad News Bears more than the first-place Yankees? Well, for starters, one man who wasn’t there and opting against going stands out. As Jack Curry detailed, 20-year-old Derek Jeter, then the Yanks’ top prospect, refused to join the replacement players. For many minor leaguers not part of the union yet, the invitation to a Big League camp would prove alluring simply because many knew 1995 would be their best and only shot at breaking camp with a big league club.

“I wouldn’t go no matter what,” Jeter said to The Times. “Easy question, easy answer. If someone is out there striking for me, it would be like stabbing them in the back if I played. I wouldn’t do that.”

For those who went to camp, their only shots at fame came as replacement players, and the names are indeed forgettable. Joe Ausenio, a pitcher I once saw in the early 1990s in Oneonta, didn’t go, but his roommate Mark Carper showed up to camp. Showalter said those two would never have even been in consideration for the team a year before. Doug Cinnella, currently a Reds scout, was 30 and had bounced around the minors, playing for the Orioles, Expos and Mets before arriving in camp in 1995.

The other names sound even less familiar. John DiGirolamo dropped a pop up and couldn’t get a good swing off of Nelson Perpetuo in an intra-squad match up. Tim Byron was a teacher who had not pitched professionally since 1986. Scott Epps, a bad Yankee farmhand, summed up the replacement mentality. “I don’t think they see me as a prospect,” he said 15 years ago. “For that reason, I have to do what is best for me. Right now, this is an outstanding opportunity.”

When the games started, the results were ugly. Few fans showed up, and the quality of play was abysmal. Players — such as 250-pound Matt Stark, out of baseball since 1990, who crushed a metal folding chair when he sat down — made headlines for the wrong reasons, and as March wore on the players and owners had to find a solution. It took an injunction against the owners to get the players back on the field, but it was just in the nick of a time. A replacement season would have been even worse.

Today, the replacement players have largely faded from memory. A few — Kevin Millar, Ron Mahay, Shane Spencer — eventually reached the majors, but most faded from baseball’s history books. Those replacement players were denied union membership and were tarred with the feathers of the strike. It is a moment baseball would be wise to avoid repeating again.

Worrying about Sabathia’s workload

It’s no secret that CC Sabathia has thrown a ton of innings in recent years, more than anyone else in baseball in fact. Since Opening Day 2007, he’s thrown 779.1 innings including the playoffs, a total of 11,938 pitches. That’s insane. Scott Randall at ESPN took a look at the workloads of the innings leader for some recent World Series teams, and points out that every one of them saw their performance decline the year after their WS run, usually drastically. Go beyond that and look at some of the pitchers on the losing teams as well, guys like Jamie Shields and Jeff Francis took a step back the next year as well.

So of course this is a concern for the Yankees, we didn’t need Randall to tell us this. If there’s one thing to take solace in, it’s that Sabathia’s career high 266.1 IP in 2009 is just 9.2 IP over his career high set in 2008, and was spread out over another month of playing. That extra month is pretty big. So yeah, there’s a good chance Sabathia’s performance will take a step back this year, but you know what? That’s exactly why the Yanks went out and got Javy Vazquez.

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2010 Season Preview: Banking on another rebound candidate

In 2008 the Yankees posted their worst offensive season in recent memory. The unit finished seventh in the AL in runs scored, after finishing in the top five, and usually in the top three, since their playoff ran began. Injuries played a large role in the decline. Hideki Matsui missed the entire second half, as did Jorge Posada. Even Alex Rodriguez spent three weeks on the DL, and many think that Derek Jeter played through a wrist injury. The team also saw diminished production from a couple of its younger players, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera. In order to succeed in 2009, the Yankees needed bounce back seasons from more than one of those players.

When Brian Cashman traded for Nick Swisher that November, he placed an even deeper reliance on the team returning to form. Not only did he need rebounds from his own players, but now needed one from an incoming player. He didn’t place a huge bet on Swisher — he cost the team only spare parts, players who wouldn’t have had a role on any future Yankees team. But at the time he was slated to start at first base, leaving the lineup with not only five players who needed to rebound, but also one, Xavier Nady, who almost certainly wouldn’t repeat his 2008 success. It was a pretty big gamble, though mitigated when the Yanks acquired Mark Teixeira later that winter.

Somehow, the plan worked out on all fronts. While Rodriguez missed the first month of the season, Posada missed a couple of weeks, and Matsui couldn’t play the field, the Yankees saw each of their rebound candidates take that step forward. This off-season Cashman cashed in a few of those chips, letting Hideki Matsui leave as a free agent and trading Melky Cabrera in the Javy Vazquez trade. Yet he apparently enjoys picking up players coming off down years, as his first major move this winter was to acquire Curtis Granderson from the Tigers. The case is a bit different than Swisher’s, mainly because the Yankees paid a lot more for Granderson, but the rebound necessity remains.

Granderson’s 2009 offensive season looks more like a follow-up to his 2006 campaign rather than his 2008. In 2006 he put his potential on display as a 25-year-old, hitting .260/.335/.438, good for a .333 wOBA while playing a mean center field. In 2009 he hit .249/.327/.453 while playing a just above average center field. He slightly improve his walk rate from 2006, to 10.1 percent from 9.7, and also increased his ISO from .178 to .204. If he had posted his 2009 line in 2007 we would have thought it completely normal. His defense regressed, but he made improvements in other areas. Even his batting average can be explained by a poor BABIP, .275, down from .333 in 2006.

Of course, 2009 did not come directly after 2006. Instead, Granderson posted an elite season in 2007, hitting .302/.361/.552, a .395 wOBA. He also continued to track down more fly balls than his fellow center fielders. His WAR that season, 7.3, was more than a win better than the next highest center fielder, Aaron Rowand at 6.1. He followed that with a quality 2008 campaign in which he hit .280/.365/.494, a .374 wOBA, though his defense dipped a bit. That dropped him in the WAR rankings, though his offensive component still ranked fifth among his peers. It was good enough, in other words, that his performance in 2009 came as a surprise.

The good news for the Yankees is that even if he repeats his 2009 he’ll still post a more valuable season than Melky Cabrera did. Of course, the Yankees are looking for a bit more than that, since Granderson, along with Nick Johnson, is charged with replacing two of the heavier bats from the 2009 Yankees. A return to his 2008 form seems a feasible expectation, though his 2007 appears to be an outlier in almost every sense. Still, a.374 wOBA, at .280/.365/.494, would essentially replace Damon’s 2009 production.

How do the projection systems see it?

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Unsurprisingly, this checks in right around Granderson’s career line of .272/.344/.484. It would represent a modest improvement over his 2009, but when the Yankees traded their No. 2 prospect for him in December they likely expected more. I’m confident Granderson can deliver, too. He clearly has the tools, and now he’s surrounded by much better hitters than in the Detroit lineup. He’ll also face a lot less pressure as he moves from the leadoff spot to the bottom of the order (though I think there are worse ideas than trying him in the five hole).

The gamble on Granderson is clear. Cash in two winning chips, Matsui and Cabrera, and put another one down on the table. Again, because of what theYankees surrendered its a bit bigger gamble than they placed last year, but I think still a winnable one. If it does pay off, the Yankees will reap the benefits not only in 2010, but also over the next few years of Granderson’s contract.

Photo credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Link Dump: Backups, Cervelli, Media Jerks

Let’s start Friday off with a few random links from around the netweb…

Projecting the backup outfielders

Sean at Pending Pinstripes took a look at some projections for the Yankees’ reserve outfielders, which essentially includes everyone not named Curtis Granderson or Nick Swisher. Unsurprisingly, Brett Gardner projects to be the best player of the bunch in 2010 on the strength of his outstanding defense and slightly better than league average bat. What is surprising is that the second best projected performance comes from Reid Gorecki, a minor league free agent the Yanks signed back in January. Although his offense will be below average, his defense isn’t all that far off from Gardner’s.

Cervelli may go all Dark Helmet on us

After suffering a concussion last week when he took a pitch to the noggin, Frankie Cervelli might use one of those big Rawlings S100 batting helmets this year. It’s the same helmet David Wright comically wore a few times last year, when he did his best Rick Moranis in Spaceballs impression. Safety first, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh on the inside.

Bill Conlin is a jerk

Hopefully you remember this post from a few days ago, which disputed a claim from the Philly Inquirer’s Bill Conlin that the Phillies might have the best infield of the modern era. It’s pretty obvious he’s wrong, as they don’t even have the best infield of 2010. However, when a NoMaas reader by the name of Matt respectfully disagreed with Conlin, his emails were met with inflammatory responses. How could someone in Conlin’s position possibly be this disrespectful to his readers?

We joke about how the media in New York can be overly dramatic and stuff, but I’ll say this much, I’ve never felt disrespected by any of the guys who cover the Yankees, even when we were in disagreement. I feel bad for Phillies’ fans that have to put up with that.

How Joba can learn about reduced velocity from Lincecum

At this point last year, we began wondering about Joba Chamberlain‘s velocity. After throwing in the upper 90s out of the bullpen, and then mid-90s in the rotation, Joba had been throwing in the low-90s for most of spring training. This caused particular concern because Chamberlain had missed more than a month in 2008 with shoulder tendinitis. Without his heat, would he be as effective a pitcher?

Clearly, Joba needed to make adjustments if his fastball was to average 92 instead of 95. He didn’t make them consistently in 2009 and it led to a somewhat frustrating season. Now, as we head into a new season, we’re again wondering if Joba will recover his velocity, or if he’ll sit in the low 90s for the foreseeable future. As long as he can make adjustments with his command and secondary pitches his velocity shouldn’t be a problem. For a good sample case, we can look to last year’s NL Cy Young winner and the man picked 31 spots ahead of Chamberlain in 2006.

According to the Pitch F/x gun, Tim Lincecum went from averaging 94 mph in 2008 to 92.4 in 2009. Yet he struck out hitters at the same clip, gave up fewer hits, and walked fewer batters. In other words, he made the adjustments necessary to compensate for diminished fastball velocity. He continues to work with his new physical realities, and is honing his secondary pitches again this off-season. In particular, it looks like he’s working with his slider, perhaps with a goal of throwing it more than 10 percent of the time.

For Chamberlain, the drop-off seems a bit more precipitous. He went from averaging 95.2 mph in 2008 to 92.5 in 2009. That might appear to mislead, since it counts Joba’s innings as a reliever, where he threw in the upper 90s, along with his starts. But he also threw bullpen innings as a reliever after the injury and averaged just 93.9 mph there. As a starter, from June into August, he averaged 95.1 mph. I don’t think it’s likely that he consistently reaches that level as a starter again.

Even so, his velocity matched Lincecum’s last year. One major difference is that Lincecum adjusted by throwing the fastball less often. When it sat 94 mph in 2008 he threw it 65.5 percent of the time. But with a bit less zip he threw it less, just 55 percent. Joba, on the other hand, continued to throw the fastball frequently, at 63.3 percent. He also focussed on one secondary pitch, his slider, over another, his curve, while keeping the changeup almost completely out of his arsenal. Conversely, Lincecum used his two secondary pitches, change and curve, about equally. He also worked in his slider 7 percent of the time, more than Joba used the change.

Reducing his reliance on the fastball won’t necessarily make Joba a better pitcher. After all, if he doesn’t have confidence in his secondary pitches they won’t be very effective. But I think that continued heavy use of the fastball will present problems for his development. He certainly can succeed with it, but he might not be able to do so consistently. And if he can’t do that, it’s likely to the pen with him.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

RAB Fantasy Baseball League Part Five

Alright folks, the league settings are the same as the other four leagues (see them here), though remember that the maximum number of moves per week has been capped at eight. We don’t want people swapping out starters every day to build up those win and strikeout totals. If you missed out on the other leagues and want in, go to Yahoo and sign up using this info…

League ID: 442039
Password: riveraveblues

If you’ve already signed up for one of the other leagues, please don’t double up. Give everyone a chance.