Prospect Profile: Caleb Cotham

Caleb Cotham | RHP

Background
Raised in the Nashville suburb of Mt. Juliet, Cotham attended the high school of the same name and lettered in baseball all four years. He helped the Golden Bears to the regionals as a sophomore, the district championship as a junior, and both the district championship and sectional playoffs as a senior. You don’t get recruited by a top tier college program like Vanderbilt without doing some special things in high school, so let’s recap all of Cotham’s accomplishments in bullet point form…

  • Three time All-District selection
  • District MVP as a junior
  • All-Region and All-State selections as a junior
  • 9-AAA Tournament MVP as a senior
  • Named team captain twice

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The myth of replacing a player’s production

Every off-season, as teams reconstruct their rosters, we hear analysts and fans talk about replacing last year’s players. This rose to prominence this off-season, when the Yankees faced losing three of their more popular players. As the off-season progressed, many wondered how the Yankees would replace the production of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon. The eventual answers, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson, did not satisfy everyone. I think, however, that this misses the point of roster construction.

Player production fluctuates from year to year. Some players on a given roster will improve their numbers over the previous year, and some will decline. Even established players will see varying levels of production to some degree. Players do have bad years occasionally, just as they have career years. They benefit from good luck and fall victim to bad luck. Injuries can shorten seasons and hamper production. As players exit their primes their skills erode, and as players enter their primes their skills take full shape.

At designated hitter, Nick Johnson takes Matsui’s place. Based on their 2009 numbers, this is an almost one-for-one replacement. Johnson’s wOBA was just .005 lower than Matsui’s, and they had identical WAR values. This indicates that Johnson will replace Matsui’s production, but it completely ignores the year-to-year fluctuation. Both players missed much of 2008 with injuries, but both played all of 2009 — and Johnson actually accumulated 46 more plate appearances. The bet the Yankees have made is that Johnson’s non-specific injury history is a better bet than Matsui’s balky knees. Add in Johnson’s age and you might understand why the Yankees bet on the younger player.

In the outfield, Curtis Granderson replaces Johnny Damon. While Damon certainly had a better 2009 season, it does not necessarily indicate that he’ll perform better than Granderson in 2010. Granderson had a particularly bad season compared to his previous two, and could easily bounce back to be a highly productive player. Meanwhile, Damon, seven years Graderson’s senior, ended the season in a horrible slump, perhaps an indicator of his age. We don’t know any of this for sure, which makes it difficult to gauge whether one will adequately replace the other.

Even then, we have to determine whether each returning player will replace his production from the year prior. Will Jorge Posada replace Jorge Posada? Jeter for Jeter? Both had particularly good years, but both are exiting or have exited the primes of their careers. There’s a chance, though I’m not sure how great, that their production declines this season. This applies to Matsui and Damon as well. We’ve heard many people — reporters, fans, and analysts alike — talk about Johnson and Granderson replacing Matsui and Damon, as if it’s a lock that Matsui and Damon reproduce their 2009 seasons. The same applies to them as to Jeter and Posada.

During the season we see the trees. We can observe and measure how each player has contributed to the team. In the off-season, all we can really look at is the forest. Does the team have a solid lineup? Does its rotation feature a number of out-generating pitchers? We can drill down even further, looking at what types of hitters and pitchers compose the team. But it’s tough to tell, from an individual player standpoint, how the team stacks up to the previous year’s. There’s just too much variation to account for. This is not to say that we can’t predict and project how players will produce. It’s that we tend to focus on the replacements while ignoring the returning players.

Every team changes between seasons. Not only do they add and subtract players who will perform differently than their counterparts, but their returning players will not necessarily reproduce their previous season. Roster construction talk often involves the idea of replacing production, but if we can’t determine how a player will replace his own production, I’m not sure it’s fair to talk about a new player replacing that of an old one. That is, it’s fine for casual debate, but I don’t think the Yankees use that when building their teams. They just want the best possible construction, regardless of who replaces whom.

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.