Yanks trade Mitch Hilligoss for Greg Golson

Back in the day, a move like this would have flown under the radar. But now we have schmucks, like the guy covering MLBTR today, digging up little tidbits to satiate our transactional thirst. As MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan reports, the Yankees have sent Mitch Hilligoss to the Rangers for outfielder Greg Golson. It’s a small-time move, for sure — the Rangers DFA’d Golson last week to make room for Khalil Greene. The Yanks are the beneficiaries, trading a guy with no future on the team for a possible outfield option.

The 21st overall pick in the 2004 draft, Golson spent most of his professional career in the Phillies system. Known primarily for his speed, Golson didn’t flash much of anything else during his journey from A ball to AA. His OBP never hit even .330 until his age-22 season, in AA, and even then it sat at .333. His contact and power numbers were decent for a speedster, however, as he racked up 120 hits, 35 of which went for extra bases, over 426 at-bats in 2008. The Phillies then traded him to Texas for John Mayberry.

Golson slipped in 2009, his batting average dropping to .258, his OBP to .299, and his SLG to .334, all while in the hitter-friendly PCL. But even before then he lost the prospect luster. John Sickels extended his top 20 Rangers prospects to 24, and still Golson fell into the “others” list. Baseball America clearly left him out of their top 10, though Golson did rank as the best athlete, fastest baserunner, and best outfield arm in the organization.

For the Yanks, this represents just another low-risk move. Hilligoss, most remembered for his 38-game hitting streak in the Sally League three years ago, probably won’t amount to much, especially in the Yankees’s system. All Golson costs is one of the free 40-man roster spots, and even then it doesn’t seem like they’ll hesitate to cut him if the need arises. For now he’ll compete for a spot on the team in Spring Training, though chances are the Yankees will just stash him in AAA. It appears he was added to the 40-man roster after the 2008 season, so he’ll have options.

Credit: AP Photo/Tom Mihalek

The best fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, and changeup on the Yankees

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve started writing about the stats we use. One concept we saw in both current entries, UZR and wOBA, is linear weights. The idea might sound complex, but it is not. The idea is to assign a value to different outcomes and situations, so we can get a truer sense of how baseball players add value. During the 2009 season, FanGraphs introduced pitch type linear weights, which took the actual results of different pitch types, as provided by Baseball Info Solutions, and ran them through linear weight conversions by not only event, but by count. This gives us a decent idea of how a pitcher fared with his arsenal.

Let’s see how each of the Yankees fared. We’ll look at pitchers who spent a decent amount of time on the roster, 40 innings for relievers plus the starters. Then I’ll compare them to the league leaders, both for starters and relievers. These measurements will be on a per 100 pitch basis, as to put it in a rate form rather than counting form. Finally, for the secondary pitches I’ll weed out the short sample size numbers by noting only pitchers who threw the particular pitch at least 10 percent of the time.

Fastball

Starter: CC Sabathia, 0.64
Reliever: Phil Coke, 1.40

Some might be surprised to see Coke atop the list — some might even say it delegitimizes the stat. I believe it, though. It seemed that Coke got into major trouble when he overused his slider. We saw that first hand early in the season when the Twins, namely Morneau and Mauer, lit up Coke’s slider. He came back later in the series to face Morneau, and struck him out using just fastballs. It was certainly his most effective pitch, which probably explains why he had such spotty success. Relievers certainly need that second pitch. Also, for good measure, Phil Hughes‘s fastball wasn’t far behind, at 1.22, and it rated higher on a counting basis.

What comes as no surprise is CC Sabathia’s fastball ranking highest among starters. A.J. Burnett is known for his blazing fastball and devastating curve, but in 2009 his fastball didn’t quite measure up. That leaves Joba, Sabathia, and Pettitte, and it’s pretty clear who had the best fastball among that group. Joba, in fact, had a pretty terrible fastball, ranking among the worst for AL starters.

AL leader, starter: Zack Greinke, 1.27
AL leader, reliever: Craig Breslow, 2.65

Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Slider

Starter: Joba Chamberlain, 1.29
Reliever: Phil Coke, -0.30

It seems Joba has good reason for loving his slider so much, as it appears a damn effective pitch. Overall it was worth 7.5 runs above average, an excellent mark, especially for a guy pitching his first full major league season. He kept shaking off Jorge Posada to get the three fingers, and he kept throwing it with effectiveness. If he can further harness the pitch this year and get his fastball back to 2008 levels, when it was at 0.79 runs above average per 100 pitches, he should have a wildly successful 2010 season.

As for Coke being the top reliever, that’s more a result of so few Yankee relievers using the pitch. David Robertson actually ranked highest, but he threw the pitch just 1.4 percent of the time, so we can discount the performance. Likewise, Burnett led among starters but threw the slider just 0.1 percent of the time. The Yankees bullpen, it appears, is more of a curveball/changeup crew.

AL leader, starter: Zack Greinke, 2.90
AL leader, reliever: Mike Wuertz, 2.75

Credit: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Curve

Starter: A.J. Burnett, 1.47
Reliever: Al Aceves, 1.74

Though we saw it fall flat on a few occasions this season, Burnett clearly has the best curve on the team, and among the best in the league. His is a power curve, coming in something like a slider as it dips down and away from righties.

Aceves boasts a number of pitches in his arsenal, but none appears as effective as his curve. He’s a nice change of pace in the Yankees bullpen. While they have Robertson, Marte, and Hughes with strong fastballs, Aceves brings it down a tick, mixing high 80s heat with a slew of breaking and off-speed pitches that keep hitters guessing.

AL leader, starter: Tommy Hunter, 2.27
Al leader, reliever: Joakim Soria, 4.86

Credit: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Change

Starter: CC Sabathia, 3.59
Reliever: Al Aceves, 3.10

Mike already wrote about CC’s changeup and how it devastates righties. So devastating, in fact, that it ranked best in league. Go CC. On the relief front, Aceves proves his versatility by not only ranking highest for curve, but also for changeup. He throws them with similar frequency, keeping hitters off-balance. Again, I love the change of pace he brings to the bullpen.

AL leader, starter: Sabathia
AL leader, reliever: Aceves

Credit: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

Cutter

Starter: Andy Pettitte, 2.50
Reliever: Mariano Rivera, 2.03

Neither of these comes as a surprise. Surprisingly, Hughes’s cutter ranked not far behind Mo’s on a rate basis, at 1.98, but clearly didn’t even approach it on a counting basis. Both of Hughes’s fastballs ranked well, with his curveball lagging behind. He probably needs to start throwing it more in 2010, though it appears he favors the four-seamer and cutter much more when pitching out of the bullpen.

Pettitte mixed his pitches well in 2009, going with healthy doses of four-seamers, cutters, curves, and changes. His cutter ranked the best, and his curve provided value as well. Those two pitches, I believe, help compensate for his four-seamer, which sits at 89 mph. Because he can go to the cutter and curve so frequently, he can keep hitters guessing, meaning they can’t jump as quickly on his four-seamer. His cutter, as you can see, ranked just below best in the league among AL starters.

AL leaders, starter: Scott Feldman and Jon Danks, 2.56
Al leader, reliever: Rivera (conveniently ignoring Lance Cormier’s slightly higher per-100-pitches mark, because Mo’s counting stat was far, far higher, and I’m biased and Mo is Mo)

Pettitte photo credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Mo photo credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Report: Nady reaches deal with the Cubs, Sheets with A’s

Update (1:58pm): Nady got $3.3M, plus another $2M in incentives. The base salary is a 50% pay cut.

11:00am: Via MLBTR, free agent outfielder Xavier Nady has agreed to a contract with the Cubs, ending his brief tenure in the Bronx. Nady still has to take a physical, which is no given considering he’s coming back from his second Tommy John surgery. The Yanks didn’t offer him arbitration because he would have probably accepted given his elbow, so they won’t get a draft pick even though he was a Type-B.

Nady hit .270-.319-.469 in close to 300 plate appearances with the Yankees, and was a potential left field option. Let’s see what the dollars are before everyone gets fussy.

Also, the A’s have signed Ben Sheets to a one-year, $8 million deal, though some sources say $10 mil. Rumor had it that Johnny Damon was their Plan B if they couldn’t land Sheets, so do the math.

Do strikeout totals tell us anything about offensive performance?


We’ve all heard the argument before. If high strikeout pitchers are so great, then why aren’t high strikeout batters so bad? Most will argue that you want a guy at the plate who puts the ball in play when you have men in scoring position, and that’s certainly true, but it’s an oversimplified look at things. Mark Teixeira, the number three hitter for the best offense in baseball last season, had runners in scoring position in just over 31% of his plate appearances. That’s it. Miggy Cabrera, the cleanup man for a middle of the pack offense, had men in scoring position in just over 25% of his plate appearances last year. We can’t just ignore the other chunk of plate appearances because of our confirmation bias, though that’s usually what happens.

The Yankees struck out fewer times than all but one AL team last year, so we have the best of both worlds. Dis-ir-regardless, I decided to look into this a bit. What I did was take every batter with at least 400 plate appearances over the last three seasons, and plotyed their strikeout rate against their weighted on-base average (wOBA,, which Joe explained in detail here). If strikeouts are so bad for hitters, then theoretically the players with the highest wOBA’s would have the lowest strikeout rates, and vice versa. As always, make sure you click on the graph for a larger view. Oh, and current Yankees are in pink to make life easy.

So how about that. The data seems pretty spread out, no? The two data points between Chipper and Holliday/Tex are Hanley Ramirez and Chase Utley, and the other two .400+ wOBA players (between Holliday/Tex and Prince) are Manny Ramirez and Ryan Braun. I didn’t want to go too crazy with the labels and clutter things. The of the trendline is microscopic at 0.0021, which suggests there’s basically zero correlation between strikeout rate and overall offensive production.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that strikeouts are good. They’re bad, we all know it. However, it’s okay to sacrifice a few strikeouts from position players in exchange for other things, like hitting for power or getting on-base at better than average rates. Just look at the graph, you can see that almost all of the players with really high strikeout rates (say, 33% and above) are generally above average offensive players. If that many of your plate appearances end in strike three, you better do other things well at the plate, otherwise you’re useless. Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds … all those guys make up for their strikeouts by hitting baseballs far, far away.

At the same time, look at all the low strikeout players that are offensive black holes. Omar Vizquel, Cesar Izturis, John McDonald … those guys contribute nothing with the bats. If you had men in scoring position, they’re the last people you’d want up because they’re the least likely to do something positive. It doesn’t matter that they don’t strikeout much, their wOBA shows they’re offensively inept. The only reason they’ve managed to keep their jobs is because they’re outstanding glove men. It’s a trade off, just like high strikeout totals.

Now what about the other side of the coin? How do strikeout totals affect a pitcher’s performance? For that, I plotted ERA vs. strikeout rate, which I know isn’t perfect. Ideally I’d plot their opponent’s wOBA instead of ERA, but I don’t have that data handy and I’m sure as hell not going to take the time to calculate it. This will have to do for now, but yes, I’m very aware of the flaws. Same deal as above, pink data points are Yankees, click for an enlargisized view.

The two pink data points just below Burnett are Joba and Javy Vazquez, while Andy Pettitte and Chad Gaudin are a little further up the scale.

Unlike wOBA, there’s a pretty significant correlation between strikeout rate and ERA, and it’s easy to see from the graph. The R² of the trendline is 0.33, although we don’t know if that tells us anything meaningful because our sample isn’t very big (I limited it to pitchers with at least 200 IP over the last three years to weed out as many relievers as possible). However, it’s safe to say there’s a (much) bigger correlation between strikeouts and pitching success than there is with offensive success, and it’s pretty obvious in the graph.

The low strikeout guys are higher up on the ERA scale, while the higher strikeout guys are further down. You start at Sidney Ponson and Sergio Mitre then ride the slide down to Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum. It’s not a coincidence. Strikeout pitchers are the most effective because they take their defense right out of their equation. Like hitters, there’s a trade off, you can live with low strikeout totals if a pitcher does other things well. However, there’s only so much a pitcher can do to make up for it. They can generate an extreme amount of ground balls and limit walks, but even that only goes so far. If you can’t get hitters to swing and miss, you’re going to give up hits. If you give up hits, you’re going to give up runs. It’s just the way it is.

All this post does is reinforce what we already knew: you could still be a good, even great hitter despite striking out a ton, but chances are you won’t be very effective on the mound if you can’t strike out a decent amount of batters. Oh sure, there’s definitely some exceptions, but they’re few and far between. We all hate watching players strikeout when there’s ducks on the pond, but there’s so much more to the game than that.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Finding some targets for minor league contracts

Ah yes, the minor league contract. It’s usually the last resort for players still looking for work as reporting dates draw close, unless they want to try their hands in an independent league, of course. Teams will look for some veteran players to fill in the gaps in their minor league rosters, perhaps bring in an emergency catcher, maybe gamble on an arm coming back from injury, stuff like that. No one goes in expecting to find an above average player that will complete their roster when handing out minor league contracts.

The Yankees have already signed four players to minor league contracts that we know of (Jon Weber, Reid Gorecki, Royce Ring, and David Winfree), and they’ll surely add a few more. The important thing to do with minor league deals is keep expectations low. As in none at all. Most of the time they amount to nothing, but every once in a while you run into a Carlos Pena, who for no reason whatsoever puts it together and becomes a productive player (disclaimer: Pena was arguably the best prospect in baseball once upon a time). More often then not, you’re hoping to get 30 decent mid-season innings or 150 good at-bats as an injury fill-in. Nothing more, nothing less.

Most players who accept minor league deals after spending considerable times in the majors (like the ones I’m listing in this post) usually have an opt-out clause built into their contract, meaning that if they’re not called up the big leagues by a certain date (typically mid-May), they get to become a free agent and seek gainful employment elsewhere. This happened with Brett Tomko last year, who the Yanks called up in early May because he was killing it in Triple-A and they didn’t want to lose him to his opt out clause.

This post was originally going to feature three players I thought would help the Yankees on minor league deals, but then Tyler Walker had to go and sign with the Nationals yesterday afternoon. So now you get just two players. Blame Tyler, not me.

Gabe Gross, OF
After trading away Austin Jackson and Melky Cabrera earlier in the offseason, the Yankees’ outfield depth took a major hit. Gorecki alleviates some of that, however he has zero track record in the big leagues. Same deal with Weber and Colin Curtis. Gross, who you surely remember from his time with the Rays the last few years, was non-tendered despite his reasonable salary ($1.3M in 2009) and remains available.

At age-30, the lefty swinging Gross is what he is, and that’s a league average bat (at best) with very good defense in the outfield corners. Gross’ down season in 2009 (.227-.326-.355, .306 wOBA) followed a three year stretch in which he hit .247-.347-.438 with a .347 wOBA, so any team that signs him would be hoping for an offensive rebound. His three-year UZR in right field is +22.7, which is among the best in the game. Frankly, I’m surprised that someone didn’t gobble Gross up yet (and I’m not alone), even an NL team as a fourth or fifth outfielder.  If the Yanks could bring him aboard on a minor league deal and are able to stash him away in Triple-A for a month or two (assuming he’ll get an opt out) as Brett Gardner/Jamie Hoffmann insurance, there’s absolutely no downside.

Photo Credit: Nam Y. Huh, AP

Will Ohman, LHP
One of the game’s more established lefty relievers, Ohman’s season ended in late-May because of an issue with the AC joint in his throwing shoulder. He managed to strain the flexor tendon in his elbow during his rehab, and ended up having surgery on the shoulder in September. Ohman is expected to be ready for Spring Training, though the Dodgers declined his $2.2M option after he posted a 5.84 ERA and lefties had a 1.295 OPS off him in 12.1 IP. They didn’t even bother to offer him arbitration even though he was a Type-B free agent.

When he has health on his side – which, admittedly, is a major question mark right now – Ohman is more than just a serviceable lefty specialist. Prior to his 2009 injury-aided disaster, he held lefty batters to a .197-.283-.317 batting line in 441 plate appearances, striking out close to 30% of ‘em (28.2%, actually). Believe it or not, he was actually throwing harder with the injury last year than he had in the previous few seasons. I’ve never been of the belief that having a lefty in the pen was essential, but when Damaso Marte‘s backup options include Boone Logan and Royce Ring, I don’t see the harm in bringing Ohman aboard on a minor league pact. Assuming he’s game for it, of course.

Photo Credit: James A. Finley, AP

Will any teams offer Wang a major league deal?

The Yankees have bid farewell to many mainstays and fan favorites this off-season. Hideki Matsui is out in LA. Melky Cabrera has stopped in the land of ATL. Austin Jackson is losing his mind in Detroit rock city. Johnny Damon is…who knows what the hell Johnny Damon is doing? There’s one more Yankee free agent who figures to move on, the sinkerballer Chien-Ming Wang. We’ve heard intermittent updates on the progress of his shoulder and the market for his services, but we’ve yet to see anything concrete. That’s understandable, given the severity of his malady.

The latest word comes courtesy of Ken Rosenthal, who heard from Wang’s agent, Alan Nero. As expected, Nero speaks glowingly of his client, noting the fine progress in his rehab — “Everything is going extraordinarily well,” he said — and the expected volume of his contract offers. Six teams are reportedly poring over his medical records, though we’ve seen the number of supposedly interested teams as high as 15. Still, Nero believes the market is strong for his client.

“We’re anticipating a major-league offer with a substantial guarantee and a substantial upside,” he said. At this point, however, with Wang not even throwing off a mound yet, will any team really be willing to offer him a guaranteed roster spot for “substantial” guaranteed money? It doesn’t appear likely, at least not until Wang moves a bit further along in his rehab.

That doesn’t appear to bother either agent or player. They know what they want, a big guarantee, and they appear willing to wait for it. How long, exactly? Perhaps until we’re a month into the season, when teams have a better view of the landscape.

“We’re so confident with what is going to happen, if we don’t do it until May, we’re OK,” said Nero. “Whoever shows the initiative to take a little bit of risk is going to win.”

It’s probably in Wang’s best interest to continue waiting. I doubt at this point, after a horrible 2009 campaign, any teams will give Wang a deal with “substantial guarantee and a substantial upside.” It just doesn’t make any sense. He’s now more than two years removed from his last 19-win performance, and as Mike examined at length last year, Wang had issues in 2008 as well.

By May — or even April, really — there will be a contender with a rotation need. They might pay a premium for Wang at that point, since they’re down a starter. But until a situation like that arises, I doubt any team will offer a substantial guarantee. Maybe a team will offer a small base salary, say a million, and stash Wang on the 60-day DL, but if he and Nero seek a “substantial guarantee,” the waiting game might suit them best.

This might rule out the Yankees, at least for the time being. Clearly Wang will go where the money flows and the innings are plentiful, and it doesn’t appear New York has either of those in abundance. Maybe circumstances will change between now and then, but at this point I think we can safely remove the thought of retaining Wang from our collective minds.

Credit: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Just another open thread

Use it wisely.