The Pros and Cons of Rich Aurilia

As the Yankees sit around twiddling their thumbs while running out the clock on the offseason, the only thing left for them to do is fill out the edges of their roster with fringy players on minor league contracts. One such player let it be known that he’d like to secure one of those contracts, as Rich Aurilia announced to the world that he’d like to keep his career alive with either the Mets or Yankees. He grew up in Brooklyn, had his number retired by my old little league, and starred at St. John’s before turning pro, so it only makes sense that the 38-year-old wants to ride into the sunset while playing near home. Unfortunately for Aurilia, he makes no sense for the Bombers.

Essentially a league average player for most of his career, Aurilia enjoyed a great … um … career year back in 2001, whacking a career high 37 homers with a career high 146 OPS+. His next highest totals are 23 and 115, respectively, so make of it what you will. HowEVA, over the last three years, during which the Giants paid him a grand total of $9M, Aurilia compiled a .261-.310-.376 batting line with a .308 wOBA in close to 1,000 plate appearances. Ramiro Pena hit .287-.317-.383 with a .312 wOBA for the Yanks last year, which puts Aurilia’s sucktitude in perspective. He was so bad in 2009 (.213-.256-.279) that the team had to make up injuries to get him on the disabled list and off the roster. “Regardless of what the transactions said, I was healthy,” said Aurilia, who hit the DL twice in the second half for vaguely described foot issues.

As if it’s bad enough that he can’t hit anymore, Aurilia doesn’t even provide much versatility these days either. Once a legit utility infielder, he’s been relegated to mostly first and some third base in the last few years. The last time Aurilia played either middle infield spot was 2008 (three whole innings at second), and the last time he played either with any regularity was 2006. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections are kind, projecting Aurilia to post exactly league average UZR’s at the three non-shortstop infield spots in 2010. Regardless, there’s no way you could count on Aurilia to be anything more than below average anywhere on the field. And do I even need to bring up his atrocious baserunning skills (-3.2 EqBRR since 2007)? Eh, I guess I just did.

If Aurilia is really looking for an opportunity to make a big league team for that one last chance at a ring, then he’s (oddly) better off going to the Mets given their unsettled bench and perpetual risk for a spot opening up by a catastrophic and hilarious injury. Either way, we’d all just be waiting for the inevitable “Rich Aurilia To Retire” post at the end of March. If Aurilia wants to stay in the game and near home next year, the best thing he could do is accept a coaching position with either Double-A Trenton or Short Season Staten Island. Other than that … you’re out of luck Richie.

Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

Open Thread: Win $1,000,000 (not from us)

I don’t know about you guys, but one of my all-time favorite past times is baseball video games. Going back to RBI Baseball to MVP to the crazy in-depth stuff we have these days (I mean seriously, I have to decide who to protect from the Rule 5 Draft in a video game?!), they were all a great way to sit back and unwind. I prefer The Show, but if you’re into the 2K series, here’s your chance to take home a seven-figure payout thanks to your (joy) stick skills.

From Asylum:

All those Dew-fueled gaming marathons and the sleepless (dateless) Saturday nights will all be worth it when “Major League Baseball 2K10″ drops on March 2. That’s because the first person to pitch a perfect game — no hits, no walks, no errors — between then and May 1 wins a million bucks.

Compete on Xbox 360, Xbox Live, PlayStation 3 or PlayStationNetwork in the MLB Today mode, select from the available matchups, then highlight the “MLB 2K10 contest” option and have at it. You’ll have to document your greatness — keep a camera or DVR rolling because you have to send your flawless game to 2K Sports on DVD.

Don’t even think about cheating: 2K Sports has partnered with Twin Galaxies International — the worldwide authority on video game records and provider of scores to Guinness World Records — to keep things on the up-and-up.

For the record, I kinda suck at baseball games. I have thrown no-hitters and perfect games before, but it’s been a mad long time, since the days of EA Sports’ MVP series. My problem is generally offense, probably because I tend to use sucky teams like the Padres for my franchises and stuff. The game gets too easy with the Yanks because they have all the best players, and I like a little more of a challenge. Anyway, if you’re into 2K, good luck in your pursuit of a million bucks.

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Here’s your open thread for the night. The Nets, Devils, and Rangers (with their new pickups) are all in action tonight, but talk about whatever you want here. Just be cool.

Upon further consideration, PECOTA picks Yanks to win the East

And the PECOTA saga continues. Last week the initial forecasts hit the internet, and they had the Yankees finishing third and out of the playoffs. These are, of course, projections and not predictions, and considering the three wins that separated the Yankees from first place, it was really a virtual toss-up. Then, later in the week, after flaws emerged in the original formula, Baseball Prospectus updated them, this time putting the Yankees and Red Sox in a tie atop the division, with the Rays finishing a game back. Again, virtually no difference among them.

Once again, BP has tinkered with the formula, trying to make it as accurate as possible. Apparently, accuracy is good for the Yankees. As the depth chart stands now, the Yankees sit atop the AL East with 94 wins, with the Sox in second at 92 and the Rays in third at 90. Just like before, this still puts the teams on relatively even ground. It’s just nice to see the Yankees on top.

It appears PECOTA has changed its mind on how many runs the Yankees will allow. It went from 789 runs allowed in the first iteration to 733 in the second, and all the way to 707 in the third. From what I understand, defensive measurement was part of the issue in the first couple of releases.

Managerial changes in Tampa & Charleston

The Yankees announced two managerial changes in the lower levels of the minors today. First, Low-A Charleston manager Torre Tyson has been promoted to High-A Tampa, where he replaces Luis Sojo (yes, that Luis Sojo) as manager. I honestly have no idea why Sojo left/was let go, but I do know he’s had a few disagreements with management over the years. Tyson was at the helm of the River Dogs for the last three years, and with a 232-186 career record, he’s the winningest manager in franchise history.

Replacing Tyson as Charleston’s manager is Greg Colbrunn, who served as the team’s hitting coach since 2007. He replaced Tyson at that job too. Colbrunn, of course, is a former big leaguer, having played for seven teams in 13 years and retiring in 2004 as a .289-.338-.460 hitter. He was part of the Diamondbacks squad that beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. Congrats to both guys, especially Tyson, who by accounts is a class act and will some day be managing in the show.

Which Yankees really had the best batting eye?

Since their rise from the depths of the American League in the mid-90s, the Yankees have always held a reputation as a patient team that can wear down opposing starting pitchers. The team consistently ranks near the top of the league in walks, finishing first in 2009. Patience has many effects, among them putting men on base for future hitters and getting into the opposing bullpen quickly. These effects have helped the Yankees win quite a few games over the past decade and a half.

Laying off pitches in and of itself, however, isn’t necessarily a good trait. Some players simply take pitches, regardless of where they cross the plate. That can be a good thing, but it doesn’t signify discipline. What we want is the number of pitches a player swings at outside the strike zone. Furthermore, we want to see how this compares to his swing percentage inside the zone, to see if he’s simply laying off pitches, or just laying off the ones outside the zone.

Here’s the list, taken from FanGraphs. O-Swing% is the percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone, Z-Swing% is the percentage inside the zone, Swing% is the overall percentage of pitches swung at, and Zone% is the percentage of pitches the player saw inside the strike zone. The Ratio number, which is how I sorted the list, is the out-of-zone percentage divided by the in-zone percentage. The lower the better, since we want the least out of zone swinging to the most in-zone swinging.

While Brett Gardner swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside the zone, he also swung at the fewest pitches inside the zone. Since I wanted to correct for players who simply don’t swing — his 34.1 overall swing percentage was the lowest on the team — Gardner falls a bit, though he’s still in the middle of the pack. Jorge Posada, it appears, has the best combination of swinging at pitches inside the zone and laying off pitches outside the zone.

Just for fun, and because it might be more telling, here’s the same table, except the ratio is out-of-zone swings to overall swing percentage. It comes out much the same, though with a few changes.

Now, for the fun part. Anyone have any suggestions on how to better manipulate this data? This is a pretty rudimentary study, and it pales in comparison to what Jeff Zimmerman is studying. Consider this a jumping off point. Comments? Suggestions? Let’s talk about this.

Did the Yanks make a mistake by passing on Reed Johnson?

Just a few days after the Yankees brought Randy Winn aboard the Dodgers struck by signing Reed Johnson, who was also in consideration for the left field spot in the Bronx at some point as well. When the deal was first reported, I said it would be interesting to see how much money Johnson got compared to Winn, who was the recipient of the Yankees’ last $2M. As it turns out, the Dodgers landed Johnson for just $800,000, which makes the Winn contract look just awful.

It’s not that Winn is overpaid compared to the value he provides, in fact if he’s just a one win player in 2010 (something he’s been in every single one of his full seasons in the bigs) then the Yankees are getting a slight bargain. However with the market like it is and compared to his peers like Johnson, Winn is overpaid. Obviously there’s a lot more going on here than just what appears on the surface, and we have no idea what went on behind the scenes. Winn was reportedly ready to accept another offer (from the Nationals) and he certainly leveraged that against the Yanks, and Johnson may have taken a bit of a discount to go back to Southern California, where he grew up. We have no idea how (or if) those factors came into play.

But getting back to the players, the idea was that the Yanks were looking to bring in a righty hitting outfielder to platoon with Brett Gardner, and Johnson seemed perfect for the role. He’s a career .313-.378-.463 hitter against southpaws, compared to Winn who’s hit .280-.332-.426 off lefties in his career and just .158-.184-.200 against them in 2009. There’s just no disputing that Johnson was a far better fit for that role, however the game doesn’t end in the batter’s box.

Just looking at the players the Yankees have vying for bench spots – Winn, Ramiro Pena, Jamie Hoffmann, Greg Golson, Frankie Cervelli – it’s easy to see that the team is emphasizing defensive competence with their reserves. Johnson’s defense has been a mixed bag, as he’s posted an above average +5.4 UZR in 106 defensive games in left over the last three seasons, so it’s a nice number in a not large sample. Most of his recent action has come in center (just 21 games in right over the last three seasons), where he’s posted a -6.0 UZR in 121 defensive games. We’ve already discussed the fact that Winn is one of the best defensive corner outfielders (and best baserunners) in the game here, so the run prevention smiley face goes on Winn’s paper.

The prevailing thought is that the Yankees are susceptible to lefty relievers in the late innings with the likes of Curtis Granderson and Gardner hitting towards the bottom of the lineup, and that’s certainly true, but it’s not like Johnson has set the world on fire as a pinch hitter. In 90 career pinch hitting appearances, he’s a .238-.303-.375 hitter, and if we’re going to trash Winn for 125 at-bats vs. lefties in 2009, it would be hypocritical to not denounce Johnson for his small sample size shortcomings. And the Yankees aren’t a team that pinch hits all that much anyway (97 total pinch hitting appearances in 2009, most of which came when they were resting players in September), so we’re talking about a situation that might pop up once or twice a week.

Yes, giving Randy Winn $2M next season is drastically overpaying considering to how the market shook out, however we’re talking about a spare outfielder and the 23rd or 24th man on the roster. Overpaying that guy for one season isn’t a big deal, especially for the Yanks. Johnson is a nice player, but as fans we tend to focus on just one aspect of a player’s game and trick ourselves into thinking they’re more (or less) than they really are, and that seems to have definitely happened with these two players given their production against lefthanders. CHONE projects Winn for 0.8 WAR in 2010, Johnson got a whopping 0.1 WAR. Sure, Reed Johnson hits lefties well, but Randy Winn does everything else better. The price is definitely wrong, but the player is right.

Photo Credit: Paul Beaty, AP

The illusion of parity

Did you know that, during the last decade, all but seven teams reached the playoffs? And did you further know, that during the 2000s, 19 of baseball’s 30 teams reached the playoffs more than once? Never mind the fact that eight of 30 teams make the playoffs every year; that’s parity!

Or at least it is if you’re ESPN’s Senior Editor David Schoenfield. In the companion piece to his crazy realignment scheme, Schoenfield spent yesterday’s Hot Stove U. column writing about parity in baseball. Schoenfield starts with the proposition that baseball has a competitive balance equal to or greater than that of the NFL, and then he finds some proof.

From the get-go, Schoenfield’s proof isn’t what we would call rigorous. Baseball enjoyed eight different World Series champs in the 00’s while football has seen six or maybe seven Super Bowl champions. “Baseball has more champions, nearly half of its 30 teams have reached the World Series, and more than two-thirds have played in a league championship series,” he writes. “The NFL totals are clearly similar.”

Schoenfield goes on and on about baseball’s maybe, not-quite-there competitive edge and even manages to talk about how money helps. He writes:

There is no denying that a correlation exists between payroll and success (good players, after all, generally cost more money). Check out the table below. Of the 10 teams that won the most games in the decade, six were in the top 10 in total payroll. Of course, payroll is not the sole determining factor in winning, as many pundits want you to believe. The Twins and A’s both made the playoffs five times in the decade, and the team that spent the smallest amount, the Marlins, won a World Series. And market size is not always a direct line to payroll. St. Louis plays in the 20th-largest market, smaller than Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego or Cleveland, and not much larger than Tampa or Pittsburgh. Of course, the Cardinals are often wrongly portrayed as a large-market franchise simply because they are successful.

Notice the number of times Schoenfield turns to the one-offs. Yes, the Marlins won the World Series, but they did so not with the lowest payroll but with the 20th lowest figure. They are an outlier and not even an unreasonable one at that. Media market size, meanwhile, doesn’t matter as much as Schoenfield would have you believe because baseball revenues are driven by in-stadium finances and reach. The Cardinals might play in the relatively small St. Louis, but their popularity and reach extend well beyond the borders of that Midwestern city.

Schoenfield is right about one thing here though: There is a correlation between money and winning. Take a look at this table reproduced from numbers the ESPN scribe provides:

The best-fit line returns an R-squared of 0.45. This suggests a fairly strong correlation, over the span of 10 years, between wins and money spent on payroll. It doesn’t imply causation, and money isn’t the only factor in winning. But in terms of an argument for parity, this graph one doesn’t help the cause. Outliers will win; small-market, low-payroll terms will get lucky now and then; but money will come out on top more often than not.

It’s easy, in the end, to link this to the Yankees. That mark in the upper right-hand corner — the one with more wins and more dollars spent than anyone else — represents the Yanks, and as the 2003 Marlins skew the data, so do the Yankees. Without them, the R-squared drops to 0.36, still a reasonably strong indication of correlation but one that definitely allows for other factors. Of course, with the Yanks making the playoffs nine out of ten times, that leaves just seven spots for the other 29 teams, and any edge can help.

So is there parity in baseball? I don’t think so, and I believe Schoenfield overstates his case. Money can still get you places. Whether that is a bad, though, is an entirely different question all together.