Talking ’bout my generational talent

While pondering our recent discussion on Derek Jeter’s future yesterday, I posed a question to the legions of River Ave. Blues’ Twitter followers. Who’s easier to replace, I asked, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera?

This question was not, by any means, posed idly. It had its origins in a questionable statement by The Post’s Joel Sherman — a shocking concept, I know. In discussing the four members of the Yanks’ old guard, Sherman wondered how to replace them. “The falloff,” he wrote, “from Jeter to Ramiro Pena, Rivera to either Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes, Pettitte to Chad Gaudin or Alfredo Aceves, and Posada to Francisco Cervelli remains pretty steep.” There’s no denying that the falloff from either Posada to Cervell or from Jeter to Pena is incredibly steep, but for the other two players, Sherman’s statement rang dubious.

Meanwhile, Brian Cashman seemed to echo Sherman to a point. In explaining why the Yankees won’t negotiate with their free agents before they hit free agency, Cashman had this to say to the Daily News: What’s the difference between him and Mariano? Is Derek any more important than Mariano? Is that a message we want to send? We have legacy-type people and we have a policy in place. Everyone understands it and it’s not an issue.” I understand overall point, but the difference between Derek and Mariano is not a small one. And thus a Twitter poll was born.

The responses I received were widely divergent. Apparently, Yankee fans love, adore and admire Mariano Rivera across the board, and many of them said that Rivera would be tougher to replace than Jeter. When the Twitter reply dust settled, the final tally stood with 20 people saying Rivera is easier to replace and 16 saying that Jeter is easier to replace. Three people said that Rivera was easier to replace during the regular season but that Jeter was easier to replace than Rivera is during the playoffs because Rivera’s postseason value is through the roof.

So we’ll start this analysis by examining Rivera’s and Jeter’s contributions since 1996. Derek has played in 2138 games for the Yanks, third most in franchise history, while Rivera has appeared in 917, tops among Yankee pitchers all-time. Innings-wise, Jeter has the edge. Not counting the 14 times, he’s DH’d, Derek has spent 18440.1 innings the field for the Yanks while Rivera has 1090 innings pitched under his belt. Astute readers will know where this is going.

With the help of WAR, we can better see how Rivera and Jeter impact the Yankees. Since 2002 — the earliest date Fangraphs presents for WAR — Rivera has put together a 19.4 WAR while Jeter has contributed a 40.3 mark. Jeter’s lowest WAR mark is a 3.7; Rivera’s highest a 3.1. Mo might be the greatest, but he’s still just a reliever.

In terms of replacing one or the other, there’s little doubt in my mind that Jeter is harder to replace. Last year, in fact, Jeter’s WAR led all short stops, and the drop-off is steep. Ryan Theriot and Miguel Tejada, 11th and 12th on the list, put up marks of 2.8 and 2.6 respectively. Rivera’s relief translated into a 2.0 WAR, sixth best among relievers, but the drop-off is less steep. Alfredo Aceves, for instance, put together a 1.2 WAR. The Yankees, meanwhile, have someone who was more valuable as a reliever than Rivera during the regular season last year. Phil Hughes’ relief WAR was 2.1. All of a sudden that drop-off isn’t so steep.

In the end, this analysis is clouded by the post-season. Mariano Rivera stands head and shoulders above every other postseason reliever, but then again, in 637 October plate appearances, Jeter has hit .313/.383/.479. It’s tough to find that from anyone, let alone a starting short stop.

As both players near free agency for possibly the last time in their respective careers, the Yankees are going to have to mull replacing them at some point. While the two are a long way from retiring, it’s still a scary and depressing thought for fans used to seeing Rivera and Jeter there everyday. Make no mistake about it though: When push comes to shove, it will be much harder to replace Derek Jeter than it will be Mariano Rivera. And that’s coming from someone who worships at the Temple of Mo.

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Report: Montero working out at first base

Surely you’ve heard the news by now, so I’m not going to bother linking to one of the many reports indicating that Yanks’ top prospect Jesus Montero has been working out at first base in Tampa. This isn’t anything out of the ordinary. The Yanks have all of their minor league catchers dabble at first as they get close to the majors, and really they have everyone work out at another position to increase their versatility as they get within shouting distance of the show.

Brett Gardner and Austin Jackson were playing the outfield corners for a while, Ramiro Pena was bouncing around the infield when it seemed like he had a shot to make the team, starters pitch in relief, there’s plenty of other examples. It doesn’t mean they’ve given up on him as a catcher, they’re just getting him some reps at another position since there probably aren’t too many pitchers down there throwing right now. If anything, this is great news. It means the Yanks are confident that Montero’s bat is close to big league ready, and he might see some action in the Bronx this year.

Chien-Ming Wang’s non-sinking sinker, and other issues

If you haven’t yet read Jay’s article about Chien-Ming Wang’s failing sinker, I suggest you do that now. It’s a thoughtful article that examines Wang’s 2009 season, in particular his flat sinker. It was so flat, in fact, that pitch f/x frequently miscategorized it as a two-seamer. There were times when he did get decent movement on his sinker, though it still didn’t sink as much in 2009, or even 2008, as it did in 2007. When he did execute the sinker in 2009, it was about a half mile an hour slower, on average, than 2007.

After reading Jay’s post, I was reminded of something Mike wrote last year about the same topic. He took a graphical look at Wang’s release point and where the ball crossed the plate. It’s clear, even to those unfamiliar with pitch f/x, that Wang’s release point was more over the top in 2009 than it was during his glory years. The movement began, it seems, in May of 2008, when Wang started pitching poorly after a good start to the season.

In response to Jay’s post, Will Carroll added a bit about biometric analysis. He adds another level to the discussion, as he brings in the mechanics of Wang’s shoulder. Apparently, according to research conducted by Dr. James Andrews, a pitcher’s bone structure “changes to accommodate the demands of pitching.” He also notes that the Yankees do not perform biomechanical analyses on their pitchers, which seems a bit odd. With such large investments at stake, I would think they want all the information possible on their most volatile players.

We heard earlier this week that Wang will sign with the Nationals, and while those rumors have been debunked for the time being, it would not surprise me at all to see him land there. They’re the type of team that can take this kind of gamble, as their pitching staff can use all the help it can get. Not that Wang provides even the slightest semblance of a guarantee. He’s a two-pitch pitcher who has seen one of those pitches lose its effectiveness. Maybe he could find success by throwing fewer fastballs, but that would require more than one secondary pitch.

While this post is mainly to point out some interesting information on a not-quite-former Yankee, it’s also to say that the Yankees certainly have their reasons for not pursuing Wang. The odds, it appears, are stacked against him.

Imagining Frank Thomas as a Yankee

Yesterday we heard some sad news: Frank Thomas has retired after 19 big league seasons. Though sad, the news comes as no surprise. Thomas didn’t play in 2009 and saw a massive drop-off in power during 2008. Though he wasn’t quite as bad as his 72 plate appearances with the Blue Jays suggested, he posted numbers just slightly above league average in his return to Oakland that year. That left him with the lowest wOBA of his career, putting his injury decimated 2001 season aside.

Growing up, The Big Hurt was my favorite non-Yankee. I didn’t understand concepts like OBP back then, so I didn’t realize that Thomas led the league in that category in three of his first five years in the league. But I did understand batting average and home runs, both of which Thomas supplied in abundance. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that I learned about slugging percentage because of him. I just remember seeing the letters SLG on the back of his baseball card, with numbers unlike I’d ever seen, or cared to notice, listed below.

Thomas was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the 1989 draft. The Yankees, who finished 85-76 in 1988, fifth place in the AL East, didn’t stand a real chance to draft him. Even if he had fallen to them at No. 15, the Dodgers would have been the beneficiaries, since they received the Yankees’ first round pick as compensation for free agent Steve Sax. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what the Yankees, pathetic as they were in my baseball loving youth, would have looked like with The Big Hurt batting cleanup.

This is just a fun exercise, not any kind of serious analysis. I’ll use Thomas’s actual stats and imagine them in the Yankees’ lineup, tweaking aspects here and there to fit the narrative. The team did, after all, have this guy named Don Mattingly already playing first, so the storyline figures to be at least a little different.

1990

Don Mattingly, who missed seven games in early July because of back problems, finally realizes that he can no longer play through the injury. The Yankees place him on the disabled list before the game, calling up Frank Thomas from AA Albany. But, because the game was in Texas Thomas cannot make it in time. Kevin Maas gets the start at first against Nolan Ryan, who is trying for his 300th win. The Rangers give him a 2-1 lead through three, but Maas, leading off the fourth, ties the game with a home run. Ryan has to try again next start.

Sick of watching Steve Balboni strike out a third of the time, manager Stump Merrill implements a rotation between Thomas and Maas for the first base and DH spots. Though their pitching still keeps them down, the Yankees finish 73-89, one game ahead of the last-place Brewers. Thomas contributes heavily to the rise from last place, hitting .330/.454/.529 in 240 plate appearances.

1991

The Yankees face a tough situation in the off-season, having three players for the first base and DH spots. Mattingly is entering the first year of a five-year, $19.3 million contract. Combined with his status as Yankee legend, he is untradeable. With Thomas a rising star, Maas is the most expendable. The Yankees trade him to the Cardinals for Bob Tewksbury, who heads the rotation along with Scott Sanderson.

In the June draft, the Braves pick first and select Brien Taylor, a phenom prospect who has some of the best pure stuff scouts have ever seen. The Yankees pick fifth and select local product Manny Ramirez.

With Tewks at the helm and Thomas taking most of the reps at first, so to rest Mattingly’s back, the Yankees improve greatly in 1991, going 80-82. Thomas finishes third in the MVP voting, hitting .318/.453/.553, leading the league in OBP and OPS, though few baseball fans even know the terms at the time. What they do know is that he hit 32 home runs and 31 doubles.

1992

Seeing the team is on the verge of something, Bobby Bonilla chooses the Yankees over the Mets. The switch hitter turns in a nice season, hitting .249/.348/.432 to go with Thomas’s .323/.439/.536. But, most importantly, Tewksbury goes 16-5 with a 2.16 ERA, winning the AL Cy Young. He and Melido Perez head a much improved rotation, and with an improved bullpen the Yankees appear set. They finish 90-72, though that nets them only second place in the AL East to Toronto’s 94 wins.

In that June’s draft the Yankees pick 12th and take Ron Villone, a lefty from UMass. After the draft, everyone raves about the Giants, who with the sixth pick in the draft select Derek Jeter.

1993

George Steinbrenner, back at the helm, realizes that his team is poised for a division title. While Stick Michael handles the smaller moves, such as trading Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neill, Steinbrenner cooks the big plot. While both players are reluctant to play in New York, Big Stein makes Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux offers they can’t refuse, paying Bonds more than any hitter and Maddux more than any pitcher in the game.

Over the course of two seasons the Yankees go from an anemic offense to a powerhouse. The batting order:

1. Barry Bonds, LF
2. Ray Lankford, SS
3. Don Mattingly, 1B
4. Frank Thomas, DH
5. Bobby Bonilla, 3B
6. Mike Stanley, C
7. Paul O’Neill, RF
8. Dion James, CF
9. Pat Kelly, 2B

And with a rotation of: Greg Maddux, Jimmy Key, Bob Tewksbury, Jim Abbott, Scott Kamieniecki

The Yankees finish 98-64, winning the AL East. They beat up on the White Sox before beating the Phillies and bringing a World Championship back to the Bronx for the first time in 15 years.

Credit: AP Photo/Harlan Chinn

Thursday Open Thread

Sorry for the delay, but here’s your open thread. Have at it.

Why Jermaine Dye never fit with the Yankees

As the Yankees searched for a left field solution this winter, we heard Jermaine Dye’s name mentioned more than a few times. Now he’s in a boat worse than Damon’s, having turned down a one-year, $3 million offer from the Cubs before they signed Xavier Nady. Now it appears no team is interested in him at anywhere near that level. In my debut post at FanGraphs, I look at four reasons why teams are staying away from Dye. When you consider his defense and his horrendous numbers to right field, the case basically makes itself.