Recapping the majors

If you’re looking for a way to catch up on games around the league, but want to do it as quickly as possible, I have a solution. At FanGraphs I’ve started a daily featured called The Morning After, which is way too long and takes forever to produce. Understandably, I want you to read it and provide feedback. You can read today’s The Morning After at FanGraphs, and then comment here. Deal?

Mailbag: Banuelos, Walk Year, Pitchers in the OF

Three questions this week and I tried to be concise with my answers, but I failed. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your submissions.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Williard asks: Since spring training, Manny Banuelos has been praised highly by many writers and scouts. But what can we actually expect out of him in terms of ceiling and probability?

There’s no hype quite like New York hype, so sometimes it can be tough to read through the garbage and figure it what is and what isn’t true. I’m certainly guilty of over-hyping prospects, we all are. It comes with the territory, and there’s nothing we can really do about it.

As far as Banuelos, he certainly got a lot of exposure and generated a lot of buzz this spring, and the Yankees didn’t help matters by keeping him in big league camp until the very last day. The good news is that we were able to watch him pitch some in Spring Training, so we could see if the goods matched the reports. And yes, they did. Banuelos legitimately sits 92-94 with his fastball and generates that velocity with surprising ease for a dude on the wrong side of six foot. His curveball is progressing and at times it looked unhittable, and other times it was meh.

What makes Banuelos stand out is two things. One, he’s got a dynamite changeup, and that was on full display last month. That gives him a weapon to get out right-handed batters, and finding a way to neutralize batters of the opposite hand is a common obstacle for young pitchers. He’s already taken care of that. Two, the kid really does look like a veteran up there. Very poised, he’s always got the game face working, and he never seems to get overwhelmed. Granted, it was just Spring Training, but we’ve been hearing that about him since the day he signed.

Left-handers with that kind of velocity and a knockout secondary pitch are at worse, mid-rotation starters. Add in the makings of a strong curve, the willingness to throw strikes, and the ability to not crap his pants on the mound, and we have a true ace caliber pitcher. Banuelos isn’t a finished product even though the general consensus seems to be that he could hold his own in the majors right now; he still needs to refine that curveball and just work on command in general. But he’s legit, there’s true frontline potential and he should find his way into the Yankees rotation before long. There’s always risk, but having the control and changeup down already means his probability is much higher than most 20-year-olds.

Clark asks: Other than empirical evidence, is there any data that supports that players perform better in contract years?

The definitive study on contract years was done by Dayn Perry and can be found in Baseball Between The Numbers. I recommend reading the entire book because it’s incredibly informative, but Perry found that from 1976-2000, the top free agents tended to be about 10% more productive in their walk year that either the year before or the year after. To put numbers on it, the average WARP during a contract year during that time was 5.56. The average the year before was 5.08, and the year after it was … 5.08.

Perry notes that this has a lot to do with player aging and not just trying harder to land that big contract. The average age during the walk year was 31, which is pretty close to when a player starts leaving his prime and entering decline. Just under 38% of players in the study peaked during the walk year while 34% peaked the year before and just 28.3% peaked the year after. It’s not really a surprise that performance tends to decline after players land that contract; the players are simply get older.

There’s definitely a very real impact from players trying harder during their walk years – don’t we all work a little harder the month or two before our companies conduct performance reviews? – but there are other factors at play. It’s not all because of greed.

Oswalt played some outfield last year. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Charley asks: So, I had this dream last night where Red Sox were playing the Yankees and they were tied in the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees had runners at 2nd and 3rd and Tito put 3 pitchers in the OF. A ball was hit to Beckett and he threw a laser to home plate. You think this could ever be a scenario; even just one pitcher in the OF to start the inning? Sounds like a Joe Maddon move.

True story. A few years ago I had a franchise going in MVP 2006 NCAA Baseball, and I was in Game Three of the best-of-three Super Regionals. So winner goes to the College World Series. I had a one-run lead in the ninth but there was a man on third and one out. Might have been bases loaded or first-and-third, I forget, but there was definitely a guy on third and one out. I wasn’t taking my regular center fielder out because he was my best player, but I put pitchers in left and right for this very reason. Granted, I cheated a little because they were two-way players capable of hitting, fielding, AND pitching, but still. Anyway, there was a fly ball to the right fielder, and he ended up throwing the ball to the backstop to allow the run to score. I ended up losing that game in extras, which sucked.

I can’t imagine any big league manager, even Joe Maddon, trying something like. I think the fear of injury (not necessarily the actual injury risk, just the fear of injury) is too great. It’s takes quite a bit of effort to throw a ball from the outfield to the plate, and you don’t want a pitcher to do that without properly warming up. Plus throwing mechanics for pitchers and outfielders are different. It would be a ballsy move, and I think I’d prefer to take my chances with a real outfielder instead of take a pitcher out of his comfort zone. But that’s just me.

Granderson drives Yanks to Opening Day win

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It had been 84 years since the Yankees started a season with the same three outfielders and same four infielders on consecutive Opening Days before Thursday, and it had also been three years since the Yankees last won their first game of the season. The 6-3 win over the Tigers was a total team effort that featured a few individual highlights, namely from the guy roaming center field.

Biggest Hit (subjectively): The Grandyman cans Coke

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The Yankees and Tigers played to a three-all tie through six innings yesterday, so it came down to a battle of the bullpens. Jim Leyland made the wise move and went to a left-hander to face Curtis Granderson leading off the seventh, giving the ball to former Yankee Phil Coke. Coke is making the transition to the rotation this year, but Detroit won’t need their fifth starter for another week or so, so he finds himself working in relief for the time being. He missed the plate with his first two pitches, rather ordinary fastballs that clocked in at 90 and 89, respectively. It’s not easy to get a 90 mph fastball by a big league hitter in a 2-0 count, but Coke tried to do it and Grandy tomahawked the pitch into Damon’s Deck for a one-run lead. The pitch was up in the zone and over the plate, prime hitting real estate. The WPA of this homer: .182, the second largest swing of the game.

Granderson, of course, was a question mark for this game as recently as Wednesday since that oblique injury limited him during the final week of Spring Training. He show the muscle was more than healed in the very first inning, making a diving catch to rob Will Rhymes of a base hit. He also made a brilliant catch going back on a ball hit by Brandon Inge in the ninth, so Granderson provided two legit highlight reel catches plus the eventual game-winning homer off one of the guys he was traded for. All in all, it was a damn fine day for the Yankees center fielder.

Biggest Hit (by the numbers): Tex Message

We’re all well aware of Mark Teixeira‘s painfully slow starts, and we also know that the first baseman took a lot of extra swings this winter in an effort to start the season somewhere besides the dumps. It took him three games to hit his first homer of the season in 2009 and then a dozen last year, but it took all of two-and-a-half innings in 2011. The Yankees had runners on the corners with one out when Justin Verlander tried to sneak a 1-1 fastball by Tex upstairs. It didn’t work, as Teixeira hooked the ball into the right field corner for a three-run homer and a 3-1 lead. It had plenty of distance, landing in the second deck like Granderson’s shot, so the only question was fair or foul. It was fair, and it resulted in a .211 WPA swing, the biggest of the game.

(Photo via Ben Kabak)

Win, Hold, Save

Once the Yankees decided to take the plunge and sign Rafael Soriano this offseason, we evaluated the move basically two different ways: the contract was awful, and the bullpen was awesome. The latter was on full display today.

Joba Chamberlain took over for CC Sabathia in what figures to be his primary inning this year, the seventh. He struck out Austin Jackson on a bit of a hanging slider, but he gets no credit for that since I think I would have been able to strike out Jackson yesterday. Rhymes then lined out to a perfectly positioned Brett Gardner, and Magglio Ordonez flew out weakly to right to end the inning. Since the Grandyman homered in the bottom half of the inning, Joba got the credit for the win today. Three up, three down by the pen so far.

Soriano was warming up even before the Yankees took the lead, and he came in to handle the eighth. He got Miguel Cabrera looking at strike three for the first out (a generous call, no doubt about it) before Victor Martinez rolled over on a slider and grounded out to first rather harmlessly. Ryan Raburn made the final out of the inning on a hard hit fly ball to deep right-ish-center. Give that man a hold. Six up, six down for the pen.

Soriano gave way to Mariano Rivera, who went fly ball, fly ball, strikeout to record his first save of the season. The three relievers retired all nine men they faced with a strikeout each, which is exactly how you’d draw it up in the later innings. Joe Girardi still had David Robertson in reserve if something went awry, and Boone Logan was available in case the Tigers actually had a dangerous lefty in the lineup. I’m still not a fan of the Soriano contract, but I love watching him get outs late in the game.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Making his third consecutive Opening Day assignment for the Yankees and eighth overall, Sabathia was strong but hardly overwhelming. He did strike out seven (Jackson twice, so they don’t count) and walked just two, but four of the six hits he allowed came with two strikes. CC will tighten that up as he gets closer to midseason form, so there’s no worries there. Seventy of his 106 pitches were strikes (66.0%) and half of his non-strikeout outs came on the ground. What I found interesting was that Sabathia threw a first pitch breaking ball to 12 of the 27 batters he faced (eight called strikes, two balls, two fouls). The data at FanGraphs says he threw first pitch breaking balls just ~23% of the time last year and ~19% of the time in 2009, so he definitely threw more than usual on Thursday. It could just be a blip on the radar, but it’s worth keeping track of going forward. Maybe it’s the Larry Rothschild effect.

Another thing worth paying attention to as the season progresses: Granderson was playing very shallow in center. It worked out well because he made at least two nice catches on balls hit in front of him while still tracking down everything hit over his head. Again, let’s follow this going forward.

Nice Yankees debut for Russell Martin, who went 1-for-3 with two runs scored, but it would have been 2-for-3 if not for a nice diving grab by Raburn. He also showed off the wheels and stole third, and looked perfectly fine behind the plate. The hip and knee look wonderful.

The 2-3-4 hitters reached base a total of six times in eleven plate appearances, driving the offense. Alex Rodriguez carried his torrid spring into the season, clubbing an opposite field double off the wall and walking twice. Nice Swisher also blooped in a single to drive in an insurance run, but he got caught in a run down trying to advance to second. I guess you take the good with the bad.

Gardner struck out in his two official at-bats, seeing nine pitches total. Can’t blame him, Justin Verlander was throwing grenades out there. He did, however, bunt twice, once in the third inning (!!!) and then again in the eighth. I’m not really in the mood to talk about bunting, so let’s just leave it at that. Derek Jeter went 0-for-2 with a walk, a run scored, and a sac fly, though he looked pretty immobile in the field. Moreso than usual. Let’s hope it was the crappy weather and wet field. Jorge Posada took an unkind 0-for-4 but it was Robbie Cano that had the worst day of all. He struck out twice (once on a ball over his head) and flubbed a routine play on the field, indirectly leading to a run for the Tigers. He’ll do better.

The Yankees won their tenth straight Opening Day game at home, a streak that goes back to 1982.

WPA Graph & Box Score

A little rocky for Opening Day, but a win is a win. MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score.

Up Next

These two teams will take Friday off then meet back up for game two of the series and season on Saturday afternoon. FOX will carry the matchup of former Florida Marlins teammates – A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny – at 4:10pm ET.

RAB Exclusive: A new look for the Subway Race

The Yankees’ Great City Subway Race (sponsored by Subway) and I have a tenuous relationship. As a little kid growing up at the stadium, I loved the guy with his Noo Yawk accent broadcasting the race between what was then the 4, D and C trains. The video had live footage inside the subway system, and the race was a thrill for the little kids pulling for their favorite trains.

At some point over the past 15 years, after the B replaced the C in the Bronx, the race changed. It found a corporate sponsor and became all special effects. In early March, I explored how the subway race made no sense and how divorced from transit reality it was.

Today, the Yankees dropped a bombshell on us at Opening Day: The B, D and 4 trains are no more. Instead of using real New York City subway routes, the Yankees have taken the branding in house. The Road Gray and Midnight Blue trains have replaced the B and the D while the Pinstripes train — today’s winner — took over the East Side route for the 4. I am as speechless as you are.

The Yankees have replaced the B, D and 4 trains with their own subway colors. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

I was able to snap the image above after picking my jaw off of the frozen tundra that was the floor underneath my seats this afternoon. How could the Yankees do such a thing to the iconic New York imagery and their long-term between-innings entertainment? Did the MTA force a change? Did the Yanks want the chance to sell pinstripe-branded subway cars? The questions were endless.

Right now, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’ve reached out to the Yankees for an explanation, and I’ll do the same with the MTA. Trust me; I will get to the bottom of this. We deserve the answers. In the meantime, we’ll ponder the fates of the B, D and 4 trains and find a silver lining: At least the injustice of the B winning the Great City Subway Race will no longer drive us nuts.

After the jump, a shot I snapped of the trains in motion. It just looks…wrong. [Read more…]

Open Thread: Textbook

Grandy was all over the place today. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Our regular game recap is coming later tonight at its usual time (midnight ET, all season long), but there’s one thing I want to briefly muse about here: I thought today’s win was pretty textbook. It wasn’t perfect, but that’s pretty much you draw it up with this team. The power hitters hit homers, CC Sabathia gave them six good (but not great, not today) innings, and then the bullpen from hell closed things out flawlessly. They scored early and tacked on late when they had too; it was just a solid win on Opening Day. I’ll take 161 more just like it.

Anyways, here is your open thread for the night. The Giants and Dodgers (Lincecum vs. Kershaw) will be on ESPN, plus the Rangers and Isles are facing off. Talk about whatever, enjoy.