Switching Gardner and Granderson

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

It’s been trendy to classify the Yankees as a poor defensive team over the last decade or so, and for a while it was absolutely true. It’s not anymore though, even if Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have lost a step over the years. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano are rock solid at worst on the right side of the infield, Russell Martin is very good behind the plate, and the outfield features two center fielders. Yeah, the left side of the infield is lacking, but the defensive is generally solid overall.

The Yankees outfield led baseball in good ol’ UZR this season (32.3 runs saved), and they were fourth overall last year (+28.6). At 60.9 runs saved since the start of 2010, they’ve been the second best defensive outfield in baseball behind the Diamondbacks (+61.2), who on any given night are running three players out there capable of playing center field (Gerardo Parra, Chris Young, and Justin Upton). The eye test agrees with the numbers as well; Brett Gardner is a stud in the field, Curtis Granderson is solid, and although Nick Swisher can look funny out there at times, he’s solid as well.

Over the last few months, the question has arose about whether or not the Yankees are using the best outfield alignment. Because Gardner is an elite defender, shouldn’t he be playing center instead of Granderson? The advanced metrics didn’t like Curtis’ defense at all in 2011, including UZR (-5.1), DRS (-15), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-13.1). One year of fielding data isn’t enough though, and his three-year rates seem much more in line with the eye test (0, +3, +3, and -12.1, respectively). Gardner, on the other hand, was one of the best fielders in all of baseball this year (+25.8, +22, +3, and +13.7) and has been since 2009 (+50.9, +35, +46, and +22.6). You’re not going to find much of an argument here, Gardner is the better defensive player whether you dig the stats or not.

Now, it is important to consider context when dealing with these defensive stats. Gardner has played left field for the vast majority of the last two years, so his performance is being compared to other left fielders. As you know, most teams have some kind of plodding, bat-first guy roaming left, only able to catch balls hit right at him. Granderson is being compared to fellow center fielders, who tend to be better than left fielders on defense. Move Gardner to center, and his +20 UZR turns into a +5 or +10 UZR real fast. That’s still very good, but the numbers can be deceiving.

SG at RLYW dug deeper into the data last week, and found that yeah, the Yankees probably are better off defensively with Gardner in center and Granderson in left, but chances are the upgrade would be small. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option worth exploring though, and I think switching the two is something the Yankees should at least consider this offseason. Granderson hasn’t played an outfield position other than center since 2007, when he spend five innings in left, and all told he’s got just 59.2 career innings in left and over 8,000 in center. A mid-season switch probably would have been tough, but it’s something he can work on during the offseason and in Spring Training. It might not be a big difference, but it’s an extra five or ten runs saved over the course of the season, it will certainly help the Yankees.

What Went Wrong: A.J. Burnett

Like every non-CC Sabathia member of the rotation, A.J. Burnett was a giant question mark heading into the season. He was coming off one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in Yankees’ history, the first player to wear pinstripes and throw 180+ IP with an over-5.00 ERA, but his team needed him. Unlike the other non-Sabathia members of the rotation, Burnett was making huge money with multiple years left on his contract, and that was undoubtedly a factor why he was being given such a long leash.

A.J.’s season started with reports of a mid-winter sit down with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and sure enough he came to Spring Training with some revamped mechanics. Nothing major, they just cut short the turn in his delivery to help keep him more on line with the plate. Like last season, Burnett’s 2011 actually started out pretty well. He used those new mechanics to carry a 3.38 ERA through his first eight starts, culminating with seven one-hit, one-run innings against the Royals on May 11th. The peripheral stats did not agree with the ERA though; A.J. had a ~4.25 FIP through those eight starts.

The Rays tagged Burnett for six runs in 5.2 IP on May 16th, then a couple starts later the Red Sox hung eight runs on him in 5.2 IP. That 3.38 ERA ballooned to 4.37 in the span of five starts, though a handful of appearances against NL teams in interleague play helped knock that down to 4.05 heading into early-July. Burnett had thrown at least five innings in all 17 starts up to that point, so he was at least sparing the bullpen and generally keeping the Yankees in the game. Not exactly what you want from a guy making that kind of money, but after the disaster of 2010, expectations had been lowered.

Burnett barely held his own (18 runs in 31.2 IP) in five July starts, then the wheels really came off. He allowed seven or more runs three times in five August starts, including once each to the punchless White Sox and even punchlesser Twins. After getting knocked out of the game in the second inning by Minnesota on August 20th, A.J.’s ERA sat at 4.96 and he appeared to have words with Joe Girardi while walking off the mound. The two (along with catcher Russell Martin) maintained that he was talking to the home plate umpire, and although it created some headlines that week, the situation was diffused rather quickly.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

After throwing 7.2 IP of two-run ball against the collapsing Red Sox on September 25th, Burnett’s final start of the season, his ERA sat at 5.16, lower than last season but not enough to be meaningful. He’s basically repeated his 2010 performance, his second straight season of 180+ IP with an over-5.00 ERA and the second in franchise history. A one-batter relief appearance in the final game of the season served as a tune-up in what was supposed to be a relief role in the ALDS, but the weather forced him into a Game Four start with the season on the line. Burnett pitched well in that game, not great, but good enough to help the team win. He held the Tigers to one run on four hits and four walks in 5.1 IP, though Curtis Granderson saved his bacon with a pair of nice defensive plays.

On the bright side, Burnett’s curveball was much better in 2011 than it was in 2010, helping him post his highest swing-and-miss rate as a Yankee (10.0%) and return to the days of at least eight strikeouts per nine innings (8.18 K/9 to be exact, 11th highest in the league). His 49.2% ground ball rate was his best since 2007 as well, but that’s pretty much the end of the good news. At 1.47 HR/9, A.J. was the second most homer prone pitcher in the AL and third most in all of baseball, trailing only Colby Lewis (1.57) and Bronson Arroyo (2.08). His 3.92 BB/9 was the second highest in the AL (behind Gio Gonzalez) and sixth highest in all of baseball. Burnett’s fastball velocity continued to decline into his mid-30’s, sitting more 92-93 than 94-95, and his 4.77 FIP was actually worse than his 4.83 FIP in 2010 when compared to the league average (112 FIP- last year vs. 114 FIP- this year). It all added up to 1.5 fWAR and 1.1 bWAR, both of which rank 78th among the 94 starters that qualified for the ERA title.

Burnett’s awfullness was generally more spread out this season; last year it was really three horrific months (July, August, and September) that did him in. This year it was one horrible month (August) and five mediocre ones. Despite the now infamous “objective pipe” comment from Brian Cashman, there is no trade market for Burnett, so the Yankees are stuck with him whether they like it or not. Unless the team manages to import four very good starters this offseason, A.J. will be back in the rotation in 2012. Expecting improvement would be foolish at this point.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 24th, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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Open Thread: World Series Game Four

(Paul Sancya/AP)

See? I told you the offense would pick up once the series shifted to Texas. The Cardinals blew the Rangers out last night in part due to Albert Pujols’ three homers, but that’s in the past and they start again with a clean slate tonight. Derek Holland is charged with keeping his team from the brink of elimination, but he’s allowed ten runs on 18 hits, six walks, and five homers in 13.2 IP across three starts this postseason. His counterpart, Edwin Jackson, hasn’t been any better: eight runs on 16 hits and four homers in 12.1 IP across three starts. More offense? Yes, there will be more offense.

Here’s your open thread for the night. The World Series game starts at 8pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and the late football game is the Colts at the Saints (8:20pm ET on NBS). Talk about anything you want here, go nuts.

Granderson, Colon up for Players Choice Award

MLB announced their finalists for the various Players Choice Awards yesterday, and a pair of Yankees were nominated for a total of three awards. Curtis Granderson is up for both the AL Outstanding Player and the MLB Player of the Year awards while Bartolo Colon is in the mix for AL Comeback Player of the Year. Obviously these are voted on by the players, so I imagine it means a lot to the guys that win. The winners will be announced on Thursday, November 3rd on a MLB Network broadcast from 8-9pm ET. Congrats to both guys for being nominated.

Vazquez off to hot start in winter ball

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (10-9 win over Peoria) Thursday’s game
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB
Corban Joseph, DH: 0 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB – that’s five walks and four strikeouts in his first 48 PA

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (5-1 loss to Mesa) Friday’s game
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 4
Rob Segedin, LF: 0 for 3
Corban Joseph, 2B: 0 for 3
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-1 GB/FB – just six of his 13 pitches were strikes (46.2%) …he’s faced 27 batters out here, with four walks and four strikeouts

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (9-4 loss to Scottsdale) Saturday’s game
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 4, 1 R
Dan Burawa, RHP: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2-0 GB/FB – just seven of 15 pitches were strikes (46.7%) … 15 baserunners in eight innings
Chase Whitley, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 17 of 25 pitches were strikes (68%) … six strikeouts and one walk in his last four appearances

Dominican Winter League
Abe Almonte, OF: 3 G, 0 for 3
Zoilo Almonte, OF: 2 G, 2 for 6, 3 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB (.333/.500/.333)
Melky Mesa, OF: 3 G, 0 for 0, 1 R, 1 SB – pinch-ran off the bench
Hector Noesi, RHP: 1 G, 1 GS, 1.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 1 ER, 0 BB,1 K (6.75 ERA, 3.75 WHIP) – he’s made just the one start so far

Mexican Pacific League
Walt Ibarra, IF: 2 G, 0 for 6, 3 K
Jorge Vazquez, 1B/3B: 10 G, 13 for 39, 8 R, 1 2B, 5 HR, 13 RBI, 4 BB, 10 K (.333/.395/.744) – he always kills this league
Pat Venditte, SwP: 6 G, 10.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, 2 HR, 2 HB (2.61 ERA, 0.97 WHIP)

Venezuelan Winter League
Jose Gil, C/1B: 5 G, 5 for 18, 4 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 2 BB (.278/.350/.333)
Luis Nunez, IF: 8 G, 10 for 26, 5 R, 3 2B, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 3 BB, 4 K, 2 SB, 1 CS (.385/.433/.615)
Jose Pirela, IF: 9 G, 16 for 37, 3 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 6 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K (.432/.462/.514)
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 1 G, 1 GS, 4.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K (1.93 ERA, 1.29 WHIP)

The Puerto Rico League season doesn’t start until November 4th, and none of the rosters are online yet. We’ll know if anyone is playing there soon enough.