Open Thread: Overreactialignment

During these slow days of winter (unless you count that Willy Taveras blockbuster!) we’re subject to lots of nonsense stories, usually stuff about salary caps and competitive balance, but in some case realignment as well. David Schoenfield wrote a feature for ESPN in which he presents what their editors call a “radical idea” for making baseball less unfair by reorganizing the divisions each year. Allow me to excerpt.

Why does baseball have to keep the same division format every year? Why should Tampa Bay and Baltimore always have to beat out the Yankees and Red Sox while the AL Central teams duel each other to 87 wins? Why should the Angels only have to beat out three teams instead of four in the AL West?

So the plan is to realign the divisions after every season. For the American League, there would be three basic rules:

1. The Yankees and Red Sox always remain in the AL East. It makes sense and it’s good for the game.

2. Tampa, Toronto, Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland can play only in the AL East or AL Central. All five cities are in the Eastern time zone and having them play in the West creates logistical and television issues.

3. The Angels, Seattle and Oakland always remain in the AL West. This makes sense for logistical reasons, as well.

Now, how do we disperse the remaining teams? Simple. MLB holds a big telecast two days after the World Series ends. We put all the team names in a big ball like during the NBA lottery selection show. Teams send their general manager and a star player and Hall of Famers like George Brett and Reggie Jackson draw out the team names. You wouldn’t watch this? You wouldn’t love to see Dave Dombrowski throw up in his mouth when the Tigers draw the AL East? You wouldn’t get excited to see Andrew Friedman high-fiving Evan Longoria when the Rays draw the AL Central? You know you would watch this.

Well, I probably wouldn’t watch it, but in general the idea of changing the division each year is completely unrealistic (and to his credit, Schoenfield acknowledges that). Why are we punishing the Yankees (and Red Sox) by keeping them in the same division year after year, while other teams get to enjoy life outside the AL East? Believe or not, there will be a point in time when either the Yankees or Red Sox aren’t competitive, so what are we going to do then, lump them in with the group that gets to change divisions each year? Aside from that, you’re killing some rivalries by constantly moving teams around. It’s not just the Yanks-Sox, it’s the Cardinals and Cubs, or the Giants and the Dodgers.

The game is in a place right now where the the two most dominant teams are in one division. It’s not fair to the other three clubs stuck in the division, but that’s life. Was anyone suggesting that baseball should realign when the Blue Jays and A’s were dominating baseball in the late-80’s/early-90’s? Somehow I think not.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the evening, and here’s your open thread. The big story of the night is Nick Swisher‘s cameo on How I Met Your Mother (WCBS, 8pm), in which he’ll be playing Nick Swisher. I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve already set the DVR. Other than that, you’ve got House and 24, but none of the sports locals are in action. Enjoy the thread.

Determining the value of draft picks

Every team and every person has a different philosophy about how their team should approach the draft, and to be honest there is no right answer. I’ve always preferred high school players because the sooner you get them into a professional system with professional instruction and conditioning programs, the better. College programs have come a long way, but those coaches can still do lots of damage (especially to pitchers). Oh sure, you’ll have to wait longer for your prize when drafting high schoolers, but that’s life.

In a piece for THT, Alex Pedicini looked at the top 100 draft picks from 1992-1999, and determined the most valuable demographics in terms of WAR. College hitters in the first round are generally the safest group, averaging 1.336 WAR per year during their first six seasons in the bigs (which their original team controls), while college pitchers are the most dangerous at just 0.649 WAR/year. That’s right, taking a high school pitcher in the first round has historically been a safer pick that their college counterparts.

Pedicini also breaks it down by draft pick (the top 20 picks are by far the most valuable) and position (corner infielders and outfielders are the safest, righty pitchers by far the riskiest). Check it out, it’s a short but very interesting read.

Report: Mauer agrees to 10-year extension (UPDATE: No he didn’t)

Update (4:31pm): Buster Olney is shooting the report down now. So much for that.

4:20pm: First it was Felix Hernandez, and now another drool-worthy future free agent target is off the market. Via MLBTR, AL MVP Joe Mauer has agreed to a 10-year contract extension with the Twins, locking him up until the ripe old age of 37. No word on the money yet, but I would think it’s over $200M. Good for him, good for the Twins, good for baseball, bad for the Yanks.

Imagining the sole situation in which Johnny Damon returns to New York

Preface

In no way do I believe the Yankees will do this, nor do I think they should. Johnny Damon had an excellent pinstriped tenure that ended with a World Series title. Retaining him seemed like an option, but only if his contract demands fell into the Yankees’ desired range. That didn’t happen, and the Yankees moved on. While I’d love to see Johnny back in the lineup this year, it’s so unlikely at this point that I had to concoct this crazy scenario. As the price for acquiring one year of Damon, it hardly seems worth the trouble.

The set-up

In the MLB Rumors and Rumblings section of his Weekend Update on Baseball Prospectus, John Perrotto mentioned Damon’s desire to play for the Rays, citing his nearby residence in Orlando. In the next sentence, Perrotto drops the bomb. “He has not completely ruled out a return to the Yankees, even though they have signed Randy Winn to presumably take his place on the roster.” Ignoring the one-for-one replacement of Damon with Winn — and further ignoring the flawed idea of “replacing” production — this is an interesting statement. How could he not rule out a return to the Yankees when it seems everyone else has?

Last week, just after the Winn signing, SI’s Jon Heyman wrote a column about the situation between the Yankees and Damon, quoting both Brian Cashman and Damon at length. Both sides expressed the desire for a reunion, but both recognized the obstacles that stood, and continue to stand, in the way. Both also conceded that they could get back together at some point in the future. “You never know,” said Cashman. Not the most specific of endorsements, but like any good GM, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility if a favorable situation arose.

The scenario

The Yankees have three outfielders who have guaranteed 2010 contracts: Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Randy Winn. Beyond that they have Brett Gardner, who will make the league minimum and who has two options remaining, and Jamie Hoffmann, whom the Yankees must offer back to the Dodgers if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training. By all appearances, the Yankees will use Gardner and Winn in left, doling out their playing time as their performances warrant. Hoffmann, if he makes the roster, would serve as the fifth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement — perhaps as a pinch runner with Gardner already in the game.

For now, we can discount Hoffmann. I doubt the Yankees will make roster moves to accommodate him. If he plays well enough to earn a spot, he’ll get it. If they have another player who can fill his role better, they’ll go with that player. That leaves four outfielders, which sounds about right. Winn and Swisher can play both corners, while Granderson and Gardner profile best in left or center. That seems to cover the outfield. So where in the world would Damon fit?

In any return scenario, Gardner would be the odd man out. He not only has an option or two remaining, but he has drawn interest from other teams this off-season, namely the Reds, Padres, White Sox, and Royals. Because any Damon contract would cover just one year, the Yankees wouldn’t necessarily have to trade Gardner to open a spot. They could simply start him in the minors and use him to fill in when needed. This makes the Yankees situation a bit more flexible.

The main obstacle in a Damon-Yankees reunion is the same as it ever was. Before acquiring Winn the Yankees had just $2 million left in their Opening Day payroll budget. All of that went to Winn, so unless Damon is willing to play for the league minimum the Yankees would have to free up some salary. Of their players currently under contract, only Chad Gaudin makes sense from a salary standpoint. He’ll make $2.95 million to start 2010.

In his column, Heyman notes that Cashman floated “a contract of $6 million with $3 million deferred at no interest.” The idea, apparently, is that while the entire $6 million would count against the official Opening Day payroll, Hal Steinbrenner might be open to a deal with deferred money. With around $3 million in savings from dealing Gaudin, presumably for a low-level or low-ceiling minor leaguer, the Yankees could put this offer back on the table. They could go even lower, too, because we haven’t seen much interest in Damon since the Winn signing.

Why it makes sense

If Damon hits as well as he did last season, he’ll be more valuable than Winn at the plate in 2010. If his defense, as Damon himself says, “was only the first two months, and it involved probably five plays,” then perhaps he can play a capable left field. We know that his bat plays well at the Stadium, and that he’s a good guy to have in the clubhouse. His speed, while not what it was when he first signed, is still an asset.

Why it doesn’t make sense

To list them:

  • Trading away pitching depth to sign another outfielder doesn’t seem like a great idea.
  • The Yankees seem to like Brett Gardner, probably enough to give him at least a half-season’s worth of at-bats in left field.
  • The chances of Damon replicating his 2009 season remain low. He’ll be a useful offensive player, but it’s doubtful that he replicates a career year — one in which he slipped considerably toward the end.
  • Stats and scouts agreed that Damon played poorly in left field last season, so his return to league average doesn’t appear likely.

Why it won’t happen

Judging from his track record, I don’t think Brian Cashman will alter his roster, trading away valuable pitching depth, just to accommodate Damon. They’re likely mindful that 2010 Damon isn’t 2009 Damon, and that the latter outperformed most reasonable expectations. True, for $6 million, with $3 million deferred, he wouldn’t have to replicate his production to justify the contract. But, again, the Yankees would have to make a further sacrifice in order to even think about bringing back Damon. I just don’t see them doing that.

Really, this is just a crazy thought based on Johnny not yet ruling out a return to New York. The door might remain unlocked, but it’s definitely shut. I doubt the Yankees would go through the trouble at this point. They should be too busy preparing for another championship season in 2010.

Photo credit: Eric Gay/AP

Andy Pettitte and stolen base attempts

Ah the pickoff. There’s nothing in baseball quite like it. When one of the good guys catches a runner napping and picks him off, there’s that rush of excitement that comes with stealing an out. At the same time, there’s almost nothing in the game more frustrating than watching one of your guys get picked off. I wanted to take a look at how often opponents were swiping bases (or tried to, anyway) against Yankee pitchers last year, but frankly the data was pretty boring and consistent with past seasons for everyone on the team who accumulated a usable sample of innings. Except for one guy, that is: Andy Pettitte.

In terms of stolen base attempts, Andy is a unique case. He’s a lefty, which has its own built-in advantage, and of course he has that great pickoff move. If you’re any kind of Yankee fan, you know that Pettitte’s move to first is world class, and if it’s not the best in the game, then it’s definitely in consideration for it. Pickoffs serve two purposes, the first obviously is trying to steal an out when a guy is napping. But throws to first also serve to hold runners close, muting the running game.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect way to measure a pitcher’s ability to hold runners … well, maybe there is and I’m just not aware of it. Anyway, because of this I’ll stick to the basics and look at how often opponents have attempted to steal bases off Andy throughout his career. We generally break stats down in terms of innings pitched for pitchers (K/9, BB/9, WHIP, etc); however, for this exercise I broke the data down using baserunners because all innings are not created equal. You can’t steal a base unless you first reach base, so looking at it any other way just wouldn’t make sense. The bigger the number the better, since that means more runners have to reach base before someone attempts to steal a bag. Here’s the raw data table (the second BR/SBA column is the league average, I forgot to label it), and the plot is below. Click to enlarge.

First off, elephant in the room, that 2000 season. I double checked the data, and for whatever reason baserunners just did not attempt to steal against Pettitte that season. Just eight (!!!) stolen base attempts by 303 baserunners in over 200 innings, and that includes the three guys he picked off. It wasn’t even one of Pettitte’s best years either. Yeah, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting on the strength of 19 wins, but he had a 4.35 ERA (4.22 FIP) and a below average 1.56 K/BB ratio. Statistical outlier, I suppose.

As for the rest of the data, it passes the sniff test. Baserunners attempted to steal bases at a slightly lower than league average rate for the first four years of Pettitte’s career, and after that crazy 2000 spike they attempted to swipe bags at an even lower rate. Once Andy got to Houston (’04-’06), it’s like they just stopped trying. We’re talking more than 20 baserunners for every one stolen base attempt. However, things changed once Pettitte returned to the Bronx.

Since coming back to the Yankees in 2007, opponents have been far more liberal on the bases against Pettitte than at any other time in his career. In fact, they’re the only three years of his 15-year career in which runners tried to steal bases at a rate higher than league average against the big lefty. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the throwing and defensive deficiencies of Jorge Posada, but note that baserunners attempted steals at the highest rate of Pettitte’s career in 2008, when Posada was hurt and caught less than 25% of his innings.

I have no idea what is causing this, and I don’t have the tools to find out, either. It’s more than a matter of just looking at some numbers given the uniqueness of stolen bases and holding runners. Maybe after a dozen years in the bigs, the league finally caught on to Andy’s pickoff move and runners have learned when to pick their spots. Maybe it’s advancements in technology and scouting. Maybe it is Posada’s arm, who knows. For whatever reason, baserunners who reach base against Pettitte are trying to steal bases more often than ever before. Any theories?

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Yankees hitters against ground ball pitchers

We all know the baseball cliché that good pitching beats good hitting. The Yankees experienced it in the mid-00s, pairing a powerhouse offense with mediocre pitching. Over a 162-game season, often facing mediocre pitching, that worked out well. But in the playoffs, with the weak teams eliminated, good pitching shut down the Yankees. It comes as no surprise, then, that the year the front office focused on the pitching staff was the year that the team returned to the World Series for the first time since 2003.

On his blog at WEEI, Lou Merloni notes that the top starters in the AL did a good job of holding down the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Nos. 1 and 3 offenses in the American League. Again, this comes as no surprise. It did make me wonder, though, how the Yankees hitters fared against different types of pitchers. Was there a certain type that caused them fits? Today we’ll look at the best ground ball pitchers in the AL and see how they fared against the 2009 Yankees.

Only five American League pitchers recorded a ground ball rate of 50 percent or higher: Rick Porcello, Ricky Romero, Felix Hernandez, Brett Anderson, and Roy Halladay. Another eight had a ground ball rate of 45 percent or higher: Trevor Cahill, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Joe Saunders, Scott Feldman, Nick Blackburn, Mark Buehrle, and John Lackey. Here’s how they fared:

In general, the Yankees killed ground ball pitchers. The exceptions are, for the most part, the best pitchers in the game. There’s no shame in getting shut down by Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez. Scott Feldman also stands out, but like many pitchers on this list his sample against the Yankees includes just one start. That’s the real trouble with making any determinations from this chart. Anything can happen in a single game. The Yankees especially beat up on the rookies — Romero, Porcello, and Anderson — which further skews the sample.

The further problem with looking at ground ball pitchers is that other traits might better define the pitcher. Jon Lester, for example, recorded the second highest strikeout rate in the AL in 2009. Beckett, Hernandez, Halladay, and Anderson were all in the top 10. Halladay, Blackburn, Buehrle, Anderson, and Beckett all ranked in the top 10 in walk rate (with Lackey finishing 11th). In order to get a better grasp of what pitcher type the Yankees hit better, we’ll probably need to account for these other factors. Digging back further, we should probably also examine how individual hitters on the Yankees hit these pitchers in previous years.

Still, on the whole, the pitchers who induced the most ground balls in 2009 did not fare well against the Yankees. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that they hit ground ball pitchers especially well, it does give us an idea of what to look for when evaluating the Yankees vs. pitchers. We’ll see soon how they fare against fly ball, high-strikeout, low-walk, and low-HR pitchers.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 1st, 2010

2009 Season Record: 103-59 (915 RS, 753 RA), won AL East by 8 games, finished with the best record in MLB by 6 games, won 27th World Series

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