On the importance of a healthy ballclub

The Yankees may miss team trainer Gene Monahan, right, more than they realize. (AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)

Gene Monahan hasn’t missed a Spring Training since the mid-1960s, and he has served as the Yankee head trainer since 1973. But last week, in news that slipped a bit under the radar, the Yankees announced that Monahan was battling a significant illness and would be missing Spring Training and some of the regular season this year.

“I miss not being around my professional family already, but I’m battling,” Monahan said in a statement. “The New York Yankees have gone above and beyond in this most difficult time. I couldn’t do this alone, but with the support and love of my immediate family, my family within our organization and the dedication and expertise of many fine doctors, I look forward to resuming my role with the team this season.”

Many Yankee fans didn’t know what to make of this news. We all know who Gene Monahan is, but we generally don’t see him unless something is wrong or someone is hurt. We don’t see the work he puts in behind the scenes making sure his players are healthy enough to face the rigors of a 162-game schedule. We don’t see the pre- and post-game stretching or the countless massages, ice packs and heat baths Monahan oversees. We simply see him jog out and fetch someone we don’t want to see getting fetched.

A recent series of posts at Beyond the Box Score, though, can help us understand Monahan’s — and the rest of the team’s medical staff’s — impact on the Yankees. Last week, Jeff Zimmerman explored the percentage of team payroll lost to the DL and found the Yanks to be among the league’s best in this category. Looking at totals from 2002-2009, Zimmerman found that the Yanks lost $175 million of the $1.46 billion they spent over those eight seasons. The 12 percent loss is good for 25th lowest in all of baseball.

In terms of total DL trips, the Yankees fare a bit worse. They’ve sent 57 players to the disabled list and find themselves with 11 teams ahead of them who have seen fewer trips to the DL. The Yanks’ 6,107 DL days are 11th highest in the league. The Yankees, then, appear to be losing their cheaper players to longer disabled list stints and also, Carl Pavano.

To put a win value on these DL numbers, colintj at BTB ran some WAR calculations and determined that DL time can lead to a difference, on average, of seven wins lost to injury between the healthiest team, which loses around 2 WAR per season, and the least healthy team which loses around 9 WAR per season. Over the span of the study, the Yanks have lost 6.49 WAR per 162 games — or 0.45 above the average WAR lost per 162 games — to injury. In other words, the team’s medical staff is great at keeping the high-priced guys on the field but seemingly average at keeping the Yankees healthy overall.

In a sense, health is one area that has seen little study in the age of sabermetrics. Because health can be there one day and gone the next, it’s nearly impossible to predict who will lose time to an injury and for how long this player will be gone. Last year, A-Rod missed far less time than expected due to his own ability to heal while Chien-Ming Wang missed nearly the entire season with various ailments. Now with Monahan out, we’ll be able to see how healthy the Yanks can be without their long-term head trainer. In a division in which every win will be important come the pennant stretch, an X-factor such as this one could very well tip the balance of AL East power.

Park faces a tough transition to the AL East

Over the past few years, specifically since the failed Kyle Farnsworth signing, the Yankees have changed their approach to building a bullpen. Instead of signing high-priced veterans like Steve Karsay, Paul Quantrill, and Tom Gordon, the Yankees have used younger, cheaper options to fill the later innings and bridge the gap from starter to Mariano. That strategy took shape in 2008, when the bullpen consisted mostly of players with under three years of service time: Joba Chamberlain, Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, Dan Giese, Brian Bruney, Ross Ohlendorf, Jon Albaladejo, and eventually Phil Coke. As the year progressed some of those pitchers succeeded and stayed, while others failed and went to Scranton. The key was flexibility.

The Yankees did sign a veteran free agent that off-season, which in a way ran counter to the strategy. While the Yankees probably didn’t expect LaTroy Hawkins to step into the eighth inning role, they expected that he could have held down the middle innings. That didn’t work out too well, though, and the Yankees designated Hawkins for assignment at the end of July, eating the remaining $1.2 million in his contract. Thankfully for the Yankees it was only a one-year deal, allowing them to cut loose Hawkins when it became necessary, though perhaps the $3.75 million salary made them pause a bit too long before releasing him.

Photo credit: Jim Bryant/AP

The $1.2 million they ate for Hawkins equals the entire contract of Chan Ho Park, who will join the major league bullpen this season. He’s coming off an excellent season in Philadelphia, though you might not think it just by glancing at his aggregate stats. I covered his excellent bullpen stint at FanGraphs, so I’ll spare you a repeat here. For those not inclined to click through, the main takeaway is that Park struck out more than a batter an inning, walked one out of every 12.88 batters he faced, and allowed zero baseballs to leave the yard.

Despite the quality 2009 performance, Park still holds a poor reputation among among fans. After breaking into the league with the Dodgers, he signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Rangers in December 2001. In the first three years of the contract, Park pitched just 271 innings and posted an ERA of 5.85 against a 5.48 FIP. During his fourth season the Rangers had seen enough, shipping him to San Diego for Phil Nevin. While Park improved the next year, making 21 starts and three relief appearances, he still posted a 4.81 ERA and 4.66 FIP. PETCO Park can probably claim credit for a good portion of the improvement.

Prior to that 2006 season, Park pitched for Korea in the WBC. He appeared four times, making one start and three relief appearances. In the start he got a no-decision, but in each relief appearance he picked up a save. Over 10 innings he struck out eight and walked none, allowing just seven hits and no runs. Unfortunately for Korea, Park couldn’t pitch in the semifinals against Japan, as he started the semifinal game against them just a few days prior. Japan won the rematch 6-0, sending Korea home.

After the year in San Diego, Park signed a minor league deal with the Mets, where he pitched 51.2 poor AAA innings before tossing 4.0 major league innings. He allowed seven runs in that span and was released shortly afterward. The Dodgers took a chance on an old friend the following winter, and here Park succeeded. He appeared in 54 games, starting five, and posing a 3.40 ERA. That earned him a $2.5 million contract with the Phillies last season. He pitched 3.1 innings in the World Series, allowing just two hits while walking one. He struck out four Yankees and allowed none to score.

It appears the Yankees made out well in this deal, signing a pitcher who thrived in the bullpen last year to a reasonable contract. If things go poorly, they can eat the remainder. If things go well, they’ll be out an additional $300,000. As I said in the FanGraphs article, it appears the Yankees believe something changed when Park moved to the bullpen last season. His numbers in relief for the Dodgers in 2008 weren’t nearly as good, so there’s a chance Park just got lucky. In fact, he certainly did get lucky, as no pitcher can sustain a zero percent home runs to fly ball ratio. But if Park can maintain his high strikeout and low walk rates, he can afford to surrender a few longballs and still be a solid cog in the bullpen.

Park made a successful move from the rotation to the bullpen last season, but this year’s transition will be tougher. He’ll move from the NL East to the AL East, where the batters tend to hit the ball harder. According to Baseball Prospectus’s Pitcher’s Quality of Batters Faced, the hitters Park faced posted an aggregate .258/.334/.398. While many of the Yankees relievers faced aggregate hitters with similar batting averages and OBPs, they all faced better power hitters. All of the slugging percentages were over .410, and many were near or over .420. Park will have to work even harder in 2010 to keep his home run rate down.

At just $1.2 million, the Yankees made a good move to acquire Park. They shouldn’t expect him to pitch like he did for the Phillies last season, but even a level below that would be acceptable. He fills a spot in the pen and allows the Yankees some flexibility, possibly in making a trade using another pitcher who was slated for the bullpen. The worst case scenario is that he stinks early on, doesn’t get used often, and the Yankees eventually eat the remainder of his contract. Best case, he pitches solidly in middle relief and gives Girardi yet another option when he makes the call to the pen.

Don’t miss my Top 30 Prospects list

Forgive the self promotion, but I don’t want you to miss my Top 30 Prospects list, which I posted last Friday. I also put together a list of five players that could jump into the list next season, and chatted about the whole thing as well. So in case you missed it last week, here’s your chance to redeem yourself.

Open Thread: Montero shakes the rust off

Surely you’ve heard by now, but top Yankee prospect Jesus Montero stole the show during today’s workout in Tampa, hitting a ball off the M of the George M. Steinbrenner Field sign in left field. As you can see from the picture, it’s not cheapie, approximately 446 feet away from home plate. If it had gone to right field instead of left, it probably would have landed on the Dale Mabry Highway.

“Today, I found it a little bit,” Montero said, referring to his swing. “I tried to put a good swing on the ball. Put a good swing on the ball, and that’s what happened.” Montero also said that it’s one of the five longest homers he’s ever hit, but on the low end. Jesus has spoken.

Once you’re done drooling over Montero’s shot, then use this as your open thread. The Knicks are playing at home, then there’s the Olympics and 24. Talk about whatever you want, just be cool.

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP

Yankees hire Boucher to scout Canada

Via Bob Elliott, the Yankees have hired Denis Boucher to be their scout for Quebec and Eastern Canada, where they haven’t had one since 2005. Boucher has previously scouted for the Expos and Nationals, and B-Ref chronicles all of his coaching experience. The Yankees are apparently the only team without a Canadian player, majors or minors, so it’s good to see them get back up there.

As player development becomes more and more competitive, teams are looking at more unconventional sources of talent. The best draft eligible prospects from Canada this year are Evan Grills and Evan Rutckyj, both lefty pitchers from Ontario who are projected as 3rd-5th rounders. That doesn’t include University of Kentucky southpaw James Paxton, who has Canadian roots and should go in the top 20 picks. (h/t Steve)

Damaso Marte: Setup man or LOOGY?

The Yankees bullpen composition changed today when they signed Chan Ho Park to a major league contract. Mike went through the implications, including who could be the odd man out, but this focus on the bullpen has made me think about someone else’s role. No matter how the bullpen shapes up Damaso Marte will be a part of it. Given the team’s other options for the remaining five spots, he also figures to be the only lefty in the pen. Does this mean Marte will be used primarily as a LOOGY, or will he play more of a setup role for the team?

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

Part of Marte’s appeal is his historical success against both lefties and righties. Since 2002, the beginning of the FanGraphs era, Marte has faced 1,057 righties, allowing 344 of them, 33 percent, to reach base while striking out 23 percent. He takes a while to retire them, it seems, over four pitches per plate appearance, but the results have been solid, a 4.14 FIP against a 4.22 ERA. He’s not a guy you bring into a game with three righties due up, but he can certainly handle the righty residing between two lefties.

As expected, he’s fared much better against lefties. He’s face 784 of them since 2002, allowing just 201 of them, 26 percent, to reach base while striking out 30 percent. Surprisingly, he takes just as long to retire lefties as he does righties, though he throws strikes a bit more frequently. This leads to a lower walk rate. Against righties he’s walked one in every 8.6 batters, while he walks just one in 10.18 lefties. That, combined with a greatly reduced home run rate, brings his FIP against lefties down to 2.77, against a 2.02 ERA.

Another advantage Marte holds over lefties is his ability to induce the ground ball. Over his career he’s induced a ground ball on 41.1 percent of balls in play against lefties. That drops to 33.3 percent against righties. The difference mainly goes to fly ball rate, which is compounded against righties because of a higher HR/FB ratio. So when Marte does allow fly balls against lefties, they don’t leave the park as frequently as against righties.

The Yankees have a number of relievers who can pitch multiple innings. In fact, all of their relief candidates, outside of Rivera and Robertson, have recent experience pitching multiple innings. Even Robertson can pitch an inning plus when necessary. Might that push Marte into more of a LOOGY role? In lineups with one key lefty, or, as with the Twins, key lefties batting back-to-back, might the Yankees prefer to deploy Marte for short stints, using the other relievers to cover the rest of the lineup?

As Chad Jennings notes, Marte’s shoulder is feeling better this year than last, when he missed 117 days with what was termed tendinitis. The Yanks are playing it cautious, limiting Marte’s bullpens since, like Rivera, he needs only 10 or so innings to warm up in the spring. Hopefully Marte’s full recovery allows the Yankees to deploy him as they see fit, rather than relegating him to one specific role.

When Johnny went marching away again

AP Photo/Rob Carr)

“I know where I want to be next year. I want to be here in New York.”

Maybe I let myself get suckered in by Johnny Damon last spring and summer. Maybe I listened to him speak in radio interviews and locker room chats in May, after games in August and on Sirius XM as recently as November and dared to believe he was telling the truth.

“This would definitely be the best place for me. I’d sure love to keep taking advantage of that right-field porch.”

It would have been simple for Damon to stay in New York City. All he had to do was tell that to his agent and urge Scott Boras to make one last contract work. After all, Damon will be playing his age 36 season in 2010, and with his defense slowing down, he’ll need to DH. With that short porch in right field, Yankee Stadium was perfectly suited to Damon’s bat, and while Brian Cashman has wisely improved the team’s defense, Damon would have had a role to play yet.

“I don’t know where else I would want to go to. Obviously, that’s not the right thing to say when you’re about ready to approach free agency, but I’m very happy with playing in New York, and my family’s happy I play for New York. There’s no bigger place to go.”

Yet, this past weekend just days before he had to report to training camp somewhere, Johnny Damon finally reached an agreement with the Detroit Tigers on a one-year deal rumored to be worth $8 million. He’ll inexplicably receive a no-trade clause, and even though his wife was reported to be unhappy with the move and even though the Yanks had extended him a multi-year offer, Damon will take his bat and glove to the pitcher’s park of Comerica and hope for the best.

In the Bronx, last week Brian Cashman sounded somewhere between a jilted lover and a shocked businessman — shocked at Scott Boras’ hubris and the way Damon and his agent seemingly misplayed this off-season. He offered the incumbent left fielder a two-year deal worth $14 million, and even though that money represented a significant pay cut for Damon, it would remain the best one Johnny had on the table all winter. At the time, Cashman too knew it would be the top offer Damon would get.

“The industry the last two free agent markets seems to be going downward and the player’s ages are going upward,” Cashman said. “It makes more sense to be patient. My attitude is if this is the place you want to be, you will make it happen. Johnny Damon professed his love for the Yankees, wanted to be here and was given every chance to be here. He’s not here anymore and I don’t feel that is the Yankees’ fault. They have to reconcile why they are not here, not me. If people want to be here and be a part of something, then find a way to work it out.”

Cashman was clearly irked at the way the negotiations went down. “Scott Boras said, ‘Bobby Abreu’s contract is $9 million a year right now on the table so why would we do that? So I expect to see a Bobby Abreu contract.’” the Yanks’ GM said. “I hope he does not sign for something less than our offer. That means he should have been a Yankee and that’s not our fault.”

At the same time, Ken Rosenthal wonders if Boras is to blame. The Fox Sports scribe believes Boras wanted to keep the Cardinals believing that the Yanks were interested in Matt Holliday and therefore never engaged the Yanks on Damon until it was far too late. From what we’ve heard in the past about Boras and from a business perspective, this conspiracy theory would make sense. After all, Holliday will make Boras far more money over the next eight or ten years than Damon will, and it just makes sense for Boras to push Damon to the side while focusing on his younger and more valuable clients.

Here we are, then, without Johnny Damon. I know my tone here sounds more annoyed than I actually am. I didn’t like Damon’s defense, and I can see his production completely falling off a cliff this year, especially away from his home run haven. Yet, something about Damon made me believe his sincerity. Today, though, I know how Red Sox fans felt after the 2005 season. Johnny Damon might talk the talk, but when it came time to walk the walk, money — and less than he could have gotten in the first place — ruled the day instead.