2011 Season Preview: CC Sabathia

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

For half a decade the Yankees lacked a prototypical ace. Chien-Ming Wang came close, and in 2008 Mike Mussina did his best to lead the staff. But neither of them was truly that 220-inning workhorse ace that the team needed. That’s why the Yankees went after CC Sabathia so aggressively in the winter of 2008. The past two seasons have proven why that was a worthwhile pursuit. In the past two seasons Sabathia has thrown 467.2 innings and has led the team with a 3.27 ERA. Given the state of the pitching staff, they need more of that in 2011.

Best Case

(Paul Sancya/AP)

While Sabathia has been nothing but excellent for the Yankees, he’s definitely had better years elsewhere. From 2006 through 2008 he accumulated the most WAR among pitchers, 20.2. He also had the second lowest ERA, FIP, and xFIP in the league. Since different pitchers ranked ahead of him in each category, it’s pretty safe to say that he was the best pitcher in the league during that span. In 2007 he brought home the Cy Young Award, and in 2008 he had a legitimate chance at the Cy in the NL despite having thrown only half a season. That’s what happens when you put up a 1.65 ERA in 130.2 innings.

Since Sabathia came to New York a few things have changed. His strikeout rate has dipped a bit, and his walks have risen. In a way that’s to be expected, since he went from the AL Central, and a short stint in the NL Central, to the AL East. But in another way, he doesn’t have it as bad as, say, a pitcher for Baltimore. Since he pitches on the Yankees he doesn’t have to face the Yankees hitters, who have produced the best offensive numbers in baseball the past two seasons. In other words, while Sabathia’s numbers were going to dip to some degree with the move to the AL East, I think he has more in him than he’s produced in the last two years.

How high can he go? Last year Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with 8.36 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, and 0.61 HR/9, leading to a 3.04 FIP. But it was his 2.27 ERA that won it for him. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Sabathia is capable of those fielding independent numbers. With a few breaks here and there, he can probably get his ERA below 3.00, but probably not to 2.27. It would add up to a Cy Young caliber season, since the Yankees offense figures to help him out plenty. From a purely best-case standpoint I can see CC going 23-7 with a 2.95 ERA. That would almost undoubtedly give him the Cy Young Award.

Worst Case

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

The whole idea behind acquiring CC, and paying him more than any other pitcher in history, is that he comes with a lower risk level than others. He is, to put it bluntly, a physical freak. Those are the kinds of guys you overpay for, because they don’t follow typical career paths. That is, where a typical pitcher gets hurt a certain amount of time and starts a decline at a particular age, physical freaks defy those definitions and boundaries.

There really isn’t a bad season on CC’s ledger. He produced ERAs around 4.35 during his first two seasons in the bigs, but he was 20 and 21 those years. His worst, by most measures, came in 2004, when he had a 4.12 ERA and 4.21 FIP in 188 innings. Since then he’s been magnificent, which makes it difficult to envision a worst case scenario. That is, I suppose, nothing but a good thing.

Injury is always a concern with pitchers. At FanGraphs, Jeff Zimmerman examined the odds of any pitcher hitting the DL in any given season, and the odds are quite high. He hasn’t hit the DL since 2006, and has only spent time on the shelf twice in his career. His heavy workload — he has thrown 720 innings in the past three seasons, second most in the majors — is always a concern. But Sabathia hasn’t shown much wear and tear from those years. Again, he’s a physical freak. Sometimes those guys can handle workloads that would absolutely break a regular old pitcher.

If I had to peg an absolute worst case, it would be a short 15-day DL stint combined with an ERA that matches his xFIP from the past two years. That is, about 190 to 200 IP at a 3.80 ERA. That’s how good Sabathia is. It’s hard to imagine him being any worse than that.

What’s Likely To Happen

As in most cases, the most likely scenario for Sabathia involves a combination of his previous two seasons. During those seasons he has pitched to a 3.27 ERA and 3.47 FIP, and has produced 5.7 WAR per season. I honestly think he has a better year in him, but that doesn’t make the situation any more likely. Sabathia has shown us plenty in the past two years, and that’s what we should use to forecast him.

Of course, a 3.27 ERA in 230 innings will be plenty for the Yankees. With an offense that will support him with plenty of runs, it will lead to many Yankees victories. That will run up his pitcher win total, which will again put him in the Cy Young conversation. Yes, Sabathia is so good that even the most likely scenario has him contending for the Cy Young Award. That’s why they’re paying him $23 million per season.

Long-term contracts for pitchers are always risky, but the Yankees did it right with Sabathia. He has been that workhorse ace that they’ve needed ever since Clemens, Pettitte, and Wells all departed after the 2003 season. There will be talk about his opt-out all season, but I suggest everyone ignores it. He’s in town for at least one more year, and even if he has his worst season in the Bronx it will still be a good one. He is the reason that the pitching staff hasn’t become an overwhelming concern.

Chavez making his case

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Not long before Spring Training began, I ran down the list of options the Yankees have for the fourth and final spot on their bench, brilliantly concluding that Ronnie Belliard was “probably the front-runner for [the] job given his versatility and occasionally productive bat.” Three weeks into camp, Belliard’s played in exactly zero games because of a calf injury, though another veteran has emerged as the favorite for a bench spot: Eric Chavez.

Chavez is the same guy that has played in a total of 154 games since the start of the 2007 season because of neck, elbow, back, and shoulder injuries. The Yankees gave him a minor league contract and figured they had nothing to lose by giving him a look in Spring Training, which of course is true. His 3-or-3 effort in yesterday’s game bumped his admitted small (18 PA) spring line to .471/.500/.529, and based on the radio broadcasts, many of his outs have been hard hit as well. If that’s not enough to tell you that he’s the favorite for the job, then just look at his jersey; Chavez is wearing number 12, not a number that better resembles a year some of us were born (I’m D.J. Mitchell). It sounds kinda dumb, but a low in camp does speak to a player’s job security.

Anyway, as good as the early camp stats are, the bat really isn’t the question with Chavez. I mean yeah, it kinda is since he’s hit just .233/.290/.399 in 628 plate appearances spread out over the last four seasons, but the biggest challenge he has to overcome is his health. So far he hasn’t had any medical hiccups in camp, meaning he’s doing better than Nick Johnson did last year. That can all change with one swing, one step, one throw, so all we can do is keep our fingers crossed.

Assuming he does in fact make the team, the Yankees figure to use Chavez as their primary backup at first and third base, maybe as a spot-starter at designated hitter and occasional pinch-hitter, but so far this spring he’s spend the majority of his time at first. With 1,233 career starts and a +28.6 UZR at the hot corner, the guy knows what he’s doing at the position, so there’s no real concerns there. Chavez has just played just two games at first base as a big leaguer though, and both of those came in relief. I know the perception is that first is the easiest position to play, but it’s not easy if you’re just learning it. Chavez booted a ground ball yesterday, and although he recovered in time to flip the ball to the pitcher for the out, it still showed how green he is at the position.

That last bench spot is Chavez’s to lose right now, but only if he stays healthy enough to actually break camp with the team. Between him and Andruw Jones, Joe Girardi will have a veteran bat from each side of the plate to deploy as he sees fit, and frankly those two will be the best bench player tandem the team has had on Opening Day in some time. It’s entirely possible (if not likely) that Chavez won’t work out in pinstripes, but the early returns are positive and that’s pretty much all we can ask for.

When will Derek reach 3000?

The Yankee captain will again be doffing his cap later this year. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Despite some simmering disputes over his rightful place in the lineup, Derek Jeter will begin the 2011 season with a milestone in sight. As he digs in against Justin Verlander to start the bottom of the first on Opening Day, Jeter will stand just 74 hits away from becoming the first person in Yankee history to rack up 3000 hits while wearing the pinstripes. Although the Yanks cheered Jeter’s franchise record-setting hit back in 2009, this year, they’ll roll out the red carpet for him.

The question often on fans’ minds then is the when of it all. When will Jeter get his 3000th hit? Will the Yankees be in the Bronx when it happens? How crazy will the media attention be? Who will the Yanks face when he does it? Since you just can’t predict baseball (Suzyn), the best we can do is try to guess when that day will be. Enter the spreadsheets.

Over the past three years, Derek Jeter has averaged 4.62 plate appearances and 4.12 at bats per game played. Over the span of 162 games, those totals drop slightly to 4.37 PAs and 3.89 ABs. He doesn’t, after all, play every game, and the 157 games he played in 2010 were a five-year high for Derek.

I plugged the Yanks’ schedule into an Excel table and set Jeter’s target batting average at four different marks. First, I picked .333, a point below his 2009 mark. Next, I went with .300, his 2008 mark and a point below his three-year aggregate total. Then, I went with .314, his career mark, and finally, I considered the worst-case scenario: a .270 mark, in line with Jeter’s final 2010 batting average.


Now a few caveats. The more likely scenario is the left column. The Yanks won’t kill Jeter early on by playing him every day, and the left column assumes that he plays 162 games a season. He just doesn’t do that anymore. Second, these projections are just that. They’re based on some simple assumptions and some simple math, nothing more, nothing less. Third, I’m assuming that Jeter sticks in the leadoff spot, but more on that in a minute.

That said, we have a pretty sense of a two-week window in early June in which Jeter ought to be approaching or passing hit number 3000. Unfortunately for the fans, if Jeter is going well, the team will be on the road when he nears the milestone. The team has a nine-game swing through Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim from May 27 through June 5. After that, the club comes back to the Bronx for 10 home games, and of course, the first three are against Boston. Imagine the craziness if Jeter is sitting on 2998 when the Red Sox come to down.

Finally, we also here in the bottom row Jeter’s worst-case scenario. If he’s hitting only .270 again this year, he won’t break the record until close to late June. The Yanks land in Chicago for a set in Wrigley on June 17, and he could very well still be trying for that hit by then. If he is hitting lower than that, these projects are likely moot because they’re based on the number of at bats Jeter gets as the leadoff hitter. If Joe Girardi drops him down in the order, expect the timeline to extend by a handful of days.

So ultimately, that’s where we stand with Jeter. I’m not going to tell you to buy tickets for any of these home games because things change. Injuries, hot streaks, slumps — they all happen. Jeter could explode out of the gate and reach his milestone by late May. He could slump and take nearly three months. With Opening Day just over three weeks away, we’ll find out soon enough, but start revving up the hype engine in the meantime.

Open Thread: March 7th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The latest from Florida…

  • The Yankees pummeled the Phillies 7-1 today thanks to homers by Eduardo Nunez (three-run) and Curtis Granderson (two-run). A.J. Burnett threw three perfect innings while Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano followed with perfect frames of their own. Eric Chavez went 3-for-3 in the offensive explosion. Here’s the box score. Burnett says his new mechanics feel “effortless,” which can only be good news. (Jack Curry)
  • It’s a split squad day, so the other half of the team is playing the Orioles tonight. That game is not on television, unfortunately.
  • CC Sabathia threw his regular side session with Larry Rothschild and Mike Harkey watching. Rafael Soriano and Ivan Nova each faced batters in a simulated game this morning, which I guess means we’re still a few days away from the former’s spring debut. (Marc Carig & Chad Jennings)
  • Andrew Brackman is on tomorrow’s travel roster, so it appears that he’ll see his first game action of the spring. Joe Girardi said that the right-hander is out of the mix for a rotation spot, however. Colin Curtis, meanwhile, had an MRI on his jammed shoulder and will be “out a while.” Russell Martin caught back-to-back games and his knee was just fine. (Erik Boland, Bryan Hoch, Carig, Carig & Carig)
  • Girardi may start toying with some different lineups after the team’s off day next Tuesday. (Carig)
  • Bernie Williams will be in camp for a few days after playing some concerts in and around Orlando. (Hoch)

This is your open thread for the evening. YES is airing a replay of today’s game against the Phillies, ditto SNY with the Mets and Tigers. MLB Network will also have the Brewers and Reds a little later on. The Knicks are playing as well. Use this thread to talk about whatever you want.

A lineup debate that doesn’t need to be

It’s quiet in Tampa these days, almost too quiet. So let’s stir up some trouble.

Trouble arrived today in the form of rumblings about the lineup. As Mark Feinsand reported, “some inside the organization” would like to see Brett Gardner leadoff while the Yanks’ manager continues to assert that Derek Jeter will hold down the lineup’s top slot. “The lineup is best with Gardner leading off,” one anonymous source said to the News. “Don’t be surprised if it winds up that way.”

If this discussion sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just a month ago, I took a look at this issue and concluded that Gardner would probably be the better leadoff option. I wrote:

All of that is to say that the Yanks have two seemingly viable leadoff options. We can’t right now conclusively say that Brett Gardner is a better choice to bat first than Jeter. He’s not going to maintain a .600 OBP in the first inning over the course of 140 games, but his willingness to take a walk and his ability to work the count and make contact leads to good things. Jeter, on the other hand, is the long-time vet who hasn’t yet hit himself out of the spot in the lineup. If he struggles again this year, though, the Yanks have another leadoff hitter on deck.

But now that the organization is forcing the issue, should it matter who leads off? As with most things baseball related, the answer is both yes and no. First, as David Pinto noted, Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot is the ideal set-up for the Yanks’ lineup. Inserting the Yanks’ Marcel projections into his Lineup Analysis Tool, he finds that Gardner should lead off in 19 of 20 of the Yanks’ top lineups.

Yet there’s a catch, Pinto writes: “This team is blessed, however, with a very balanced lineup, so the difference between the best and worst Yankees lineups is just 0.27 runs per game, or 44 runs over a whole year. The default lineup I used, with Jeter first and Gardner ninth, comes in at just 0.045 runs short of the best, seven runs over a whole season. The worst projected OBP on the starting Yankees belongs to Curtis Granderson at .329. The AL average in 2010 came in at .327.”

The Lineup Analysis Tool doesn’t considering Jeter’s tendencies to hit into double plays or the role Brett Gardner’s stolen bases would play atop the lineup, but Pinto’s point remains: “When you have that much talent in the lineup, it really doesn’t matter where you bat the players. This team is going to score runs.”

Ultimately, Jeter’s age-related decline might force the issue. He won’t lead off forever, and the Yankees will have to move him down in the lineup. But for now, in early March without seeing Jeter earn sustained ABs against Major League pitching, he can be the once and future leadoff hitter. If he falters, Brett Gardner can easily slide into the one hole, and that’s a good problem to have.

The RAB Radio Show: March 7, 2011

It was A.J. Burnett‘s turn in the rotation today and he looked good. Joe and Mike discussed exactly what looked good. It really brings up a good question about how pitching coaches communicate with their pitchers.

Then it’s onto Eric Chavez. Barring injury he’s coming north with the team. We discuss how he’s looked and how he can help during the season.

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