Do the Phillies’ really have the best infield of the modern era?

We get dozens of links through our tip box each day, but most of the time it’s something we’ve already found or a piece of minor news. However, this morning a reader sent in a link to this Bill Conlin column from today’s Philly Inquirer, claiming that the Phillies have “what is potentially the greatest all-around infield of a modern era that began in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson kicked down the door that had barred players of color from the major leagues.”

Now don’t get me wrong, the Phillies’ current infield alignment of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Placido Polanco is very, very good. It’s obviously a championship caliber quartet and one of the best in recent memory,  but is it the best infield of the modern era? No. It’s not even the best infield in the game today.

Conlin notes that the Yankees’ infield “slammed 112 homers [in 2009], three more than the Phillies with [Pedro] Feliz at third. But the Phils’ Fab Four won the RBI war, 393-373.” Of course, we all know counting stats – especially RBI – are stupid. They lack context for things like park effects, league difference, injuries, the whole nine. Just looking at raw triple-slash stats, the Phils’ four main infielders collectively hit .273-.344-.473 with a .358 wOBA in 2009. The Yanks, meanwhile, saw their four main infielders hit … wait for it … .310-.384-.519 with a .390 wOBP as a group. That’s a .903 OPS infield. It’s like having four Josh Hamilton’s circa 2008 on the diamond, but just a touch better. The Yanks infield had 44 more hits and 20 more walks than the Phillies’ infield last year despite coming to the plate 158 fewer times. Obviously, this is no contest offensively.

Conlin suggested the Phillies potentially have the best all-around infield, meaning things like defense and baserunning count too. And of course they do. We watched Jason Giambi negate much of his offense with his defense for the better part of a decade. The easiest way to examine this is to look at WAR, so let’s do that. Everything comes from Sean Smith’s database

I’m not sure if the 2010 projection has Polanco at second or third base, but it doesn’t matter since the move from a middle spot to a corner spot carries a negative positional adjustment. Either way, the Yankees were better last year, and project to be better this year. Unlike FanGraphs’ WAR, CHONE’s accounts for baserunning, so we don’t need to worry about adjusting anything. The 2010 projections for the two infields are pretty close, just about half a win apart, so it is possible the Phillies’ infield outperforms the Yanks’,. That would require a considerable fall from grace by Jeter and a major rebound from Rollins, though.

Also, just look at this subjectively. Howard can mash, but so can Tex, and the Yanks’ first baseman is one of the best defenders at his position in the game. Utley is clearly a better player Cano, and the same could be said about A-Rod and Polanco. Jeter’s not going to put up the same kind of homerun totals that Rollins will, but he’s a better offensive player because of a massive advantage in on-base percentage. Jeter closed the gap defensively the last two seasons, but Rollins has the better rep. Even if you feel like being extremely generous and consider Tex-Howard and Jeter-Rollins to be washes, the difference between A-Rod and Polanco is greater than the difference between Utley and Cano.

I can understand why fans and the media in Philadelphia are excited. They’ve got a great lineup, added Roy Halladay, and have won two straight pennants, but when it comes to infield might, they’re going to have to play second fiddle the Yankees. Again.

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola

2010 Season Preview: Can Jeter keep it up?

It’s really not as easy as Derek Jeter makes it look. Last season, the Yankees became the first team in baseball history to win the World Series with a 35-year-old shortstop, though you wouldn’t have been able to tell Jeter was that old by his .344-.432-.563 postseason batting line. The Captain has spoiled us for more than a decade, though history tells us that the end may be coming sooner than we expect.

Since baseball’s expansion era began in 1961, just six players age-35 or older have managed to post better than a 100 OPS+ while playing at least 100 games at the shortstop position. The best individual season of that group came just last year, when Jeter hit .334-.406-.465 with a .390 wOBA (132 OPS+) in 150 games at the position. The next best season was Barry Larkin’s .338 wOBA/118 OPS+ campaign in 2000, when he played just 102 games, so you can see just how absurdly historic Jeter’s season was for an older shortstop. The historical data gets even grimmer when you look at shortstops age-36 or older, because just three players in the last half-century have managed to be above average offensively while playing the position for at least 100 games.

Those three players, like Jeter, are all either in the Hall of Fame or will be very soon. The careers of Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio are defined by their outstanding defense, and even though Larkin was the complete package of offense and defense, he battled injuries throughout his entire 19-year career that limited him to just seven seasons of 140 or more games played. Larkin’s age-36 season, that .338 wOBA/118 OPS+ one I mentioned in the last paragraph, was the last time he was an above average every day player. Roberto Alomar, another great all-around middle infielder, was a shell of himself by the time he was Jeter’s age. History clearly does not portend good things for the Yankees’ captain.

Older players are generally unable to provide the level of quickness and athleticism required at the shortstop position, yet amazingly Jeter has managed to improve his defense despite entering his mid-30’s. After bottoming out at -16.0 range runs in 2007 (-16.7 UZR), Jeter improved to -3.2 range runs in 2008 (-0.7 UZR) and +3.7 range runs in 2009 (+8.4 UZR). All of that progress was made after GM Brian Cashman told the Captain that he wanted him to improve his defense over dinner. Because they’re weighted over the last three season, Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections see Jeter regressing back down to a -2.0 UZR defender next season. It’s almost impossible to see Jeter repeating last year’s defensive excellence, though hopefully he doesn’t crash that hard.

Always a threat on the bases, Jeter’s a high percentage basestealer (85.7% success rate last year, 79.% last year) that’s good for anywhere from 10-30 steals per season. He’s been consistently worth about one run above average when you consider all aspects of baserunning (advancing on sacrifice flies, moving up on grounders, etc), so there’s no reason to suspect him to be any worse than that next year. Sure, he’ll probably lose a step or two, but running the bases is more about smarts than pure speed.

Moving ahead to offense, let’s see what the five freely available projection systems have in store for the Yanks’ captain. Remember to click for a larger view.

After posting a .390 wOBA for the fourth time in his career last season, the projections have Jeter dropping off to a .359 wOBA in 2010. While that doesn’t match the career low .343 wOBA he put up in 2008, it would be his second worst offensive output since 1998. While an 8% decline in offense is significant, keep in mind that only three non-Jeter shortstops bested a .359 wOBA in 2009. Jeter’s offensive production would continue to be very good for the position, but no longer elite.

Rounding it all up, we have the various projections calling for the Cap’n to put up a .359 wOBA in 660 plate appearances, -2.0 UZR on defense, and let’s call it another +1.0 run on the bases. The works out to 4.3 WAR, about a three win drop off from Jeter’s ungodly 2009 campaign. If he’s a +3.2 UZR defender (halfway between his 2009 mark his 2010 projection), then it bumps him up another half-win to 4.8 WAR. Given the historical suckiness of 36-year-old shortstops, the Yankees should be ecstatic if they get a four-plus win season in 2010.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Jeter’s expiring contract. History has shown that the Yankees should avoid doing anything but going year-to-year with Jeter from here on out, but that’s just not feasible. He’s the face of the franchise, and if he has the kind of season he’s projected to have in 2010, it’ll be near-impossible for the team to sign him on favorable terms. Either way, the contract is going to take both sides into uncharted territory regarding shortstops Jeter’s age.

Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP

A complex solution to a modest problem

Does baseball need to realign its teams and divisions? Probably not, but that won’t stop interested parties from discussing the possibilities. A few weeks ago Ben addressed Ken Rosenthal’s plan, which includes many teams switching teams and leagues. That might have sounded radical, but it’s not quite at the level of the plan Tom Verducci shares. Unlike Rosenthal’s, this plan, which involves changes on a yearly basis, is actually being considered by baseball officials.

Just how would a floating realignment scheme work?

One example of floating realignment, according to one insider, would work this way: Cleveland, which is rebuilding with a reduced payroll, could opt to leave the AL Central to play in the AL East. The Indians would benefit from an unbalanced schedule that would give them a total of 18 lucrative home dates against the Yankees and Red Sox instead of their current eight. A small or mid-market contender, such as Tampa Bay or Baltimore, could move to the AL Central to get a better crack at postseason play instead of continually fighting against the mega-payrolls of New York and Boston.

For starters, I’m sure only three teams want to break up the AL East. The rest would rather see the Yankees and the Sox in the same division. After all, why would you want one of the two biggest spending teams to separate and possibly move into your division? That could actually make it easier for both the Yankees and the Red Sox to win their divisions, since 1) they’re not fighting for the same division title, and 2) they would no longer play each other 18 times a year. In fact, if one moved to the NL — interleague moves would be permitted under this plan — they wouldn’t play each other except during the interleague period.

At first I thought that the complexity of a floating system was a bug in the system, though after further thought I think it’s a feature. Fans love the off-season. The Yankees won the World Series this year, yet more people visited the site during the Winter Meetings than the World Series. A series of measures to determine yearly realignment could add another level to the off-season. I’m sure we’d all pay close attention as teams vied for optimal places within divisions, thus determining their main competition for the following season.

The flipside is that plenty of teams would try to use the system as a way to punt their rebuilding seasons. In Verducci’s example, the Indians would essentially be running and hiding from the competition, taking their licks from the AL East — or whatever division at the time presents the toughest competition. This not only allows teams to hide away as they rebuild, but it allows better teams to face weaker competition. This is the part of the idea I like least. If floating realignment does become a real possibility, I’d far rather see a system where the best teams get grouped somewhat together, so that they can play each other more often.

While MLB likely won’t implement this plan, it is a much better option than static realignment in order to break up the Yankees and Red Sox. Again, only three teams really care about this issue. The rest probably like having the two in the same division. Static realignment also ignores the possibility — and, in the long term, certainty — that the Sox and Yanks fall from power. The whole thing will be for naught if two teams in another division accumulate the power the Yankees and the Sox currently wield.

Still, floating realignment does have its benefits. I’d like to see a sampling of exactly how teams can change divisions. That will determine its viability. If it allows for strong teams playing strong teams more often, they might be onto something. But if it allows low payroll teams to hide out among the big boys, raking in cash at the gate when those teams come to town, I’m not sure I favor it. Any realignment plan should favor the teams that put out a quality product. To favor the Indians just because they’re rebuilding doesn’t seem like a solid reason to propose a plan like this.

A quick word on the new header

From Ben last night: We made a few design changes to the site tonight, and some of them are being a little bit pesky as they come online. Right now, the site is rendering a-OK for those using most browsers, but if the menu links are coming up unformatted with text bleeding into the main column, clear your browser cache and hit refresh. If that doesn’t do the trick, contact us with your browser and operating system info and a screenshot of the problem.

Past Trade Review: Jose Contreras

By most appearances, the Yankees were sitting pretty at the 2004 trade deadline. They were 64-38, 7.5 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox and 6.5 games ahead of the next closest AL competitor. On the night before the deadline they defeated the Orioles 2-1 on the strength of a Kevin Brown performance, his first start after spending more than a month on the DL. The team looked poised to win its seventh straight AL East title.

Still, the team had a major weakness in its pitching staff. They had allowed 500 runs through July 30, the second worst mark among teams above .500. It was also 10 runs worse than the Red Sox, while the Sox had outscored the Yankees by 10 runs to that point. That must have made the Yankees feel a little less secure in their position. In fact, it led them to seriously discuss a Randy Johnson trade with the Diamondbacks.

By July 28, however, it was apparent that Johnson would remain in Arizona. But that wouldn’t stop Brian Cashman from attempting to improve the team’s pitching staff. As he commented around the time the Johnson talks fell apart, “Right now, I’m exchanging ideas with other G.M.’s [sic] and trying to improve our club.” When that quote appeared in The New York Times, few of us could have guessed the mystery pitcher. A day after publication, a minute before the 4 p.m. trade deadline, we found out, though the more surprising aspect was the player the Yankees traded away.

Photo credit: Paul Sancya/AP

The Yankees signed Jose Contreras to a four-year, $32 million deal in the winter of 2002, which led to the now infamous Evil Empire declaration from Larry Lucchino. Because the rotation was so crowded, Contreras started the 2003 season in the bullpen, though he didn’t get much work early in the season. In just eight relief appearances he allowed 11 runs, six in three appearances against the Jays and five in one appearance against the Red Sox. He transitioned to the rotation at the end of May, and in his first two starts he allowed two runs over 14 innings, striking out 12. But he strained his subscapularis, causing him to miss over two months. Upon his return he pitched well in all but one start. Of course, that one came against Boston.

In 2004, however, Contreras could not put it together, which hurt particularly because the Yankees were relying on him. They had lost Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells over the off-season and needed Contreras to hold down a spot atop the rotation. After a two-out start against Baltimore on June 2, Contreras held a 7.11 ERA, having pitched just 31.2 innings over eight starts. He recovered a bit after that, bringing his ERA down to 4.84 after a July 20 start against the Devil Rays, but then surrendered 15 runs over 12 innings in his next two starts against Boston and Baltimore. With their rotation reeling — even Tanyon Sturtze had gotten a start by that point — the Yankees needed an upgrade.

Brian Cashman and White Sox GM Ken Williams got a bit creative in their deadline deal. Instead of swapping prospects for veterans, as we often see, they decided to swap underperforming vet for underperforming vet. The White Sox received Contreras, plus $4 million, while the Yankees received 2003 Cy Young runner-up Esteban Loaiza. Even though his 2004 season more resembled his spotty past than it did his stellar 2003, he was still out-pitching Contreras. Plus, he would hit free agency after the season, which left the Yankees some flexibility.

The deal could not have backfired worse. Loaiza jumped right into the rotation, much to the joy of opposing hitters. He allowed 22 runs, 20 earned, over 24.2 innings in his first five starts, striking out 16 to 13 walks and 6 home runs. In other words, he had the FIP, 6.71, to go with the ERA, 7.30. After surrendering four runs in 4.1 innings to the Jays on August 27 the Yanks removed him from the rotation, though his bullpen stint went just as poorly. He made just one more start that year, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten even that had Kevin Brown not broken his hand punching a wall.

Loaiza’s only saving grace that year was the playoffs, in which he allowed just one run over 8.1 IP. Then again, that was a pretty important, the game-winner against Boston in Game 5 of the ALCS. The Yankees let him walk after that season, meaning all they got out of the deal was two months of horrible pitching, followed by a decent playoff run marred by one enormous run.

Contreras had his troubles in Chicago, keeping his ERA pretty consistent up until his last start, an eight-inning, zero run performance against Kansas City. The next year, however, is when the Yankees regretted the deal. As they ran through a series of scrubs because of various injuries to their pitching staff, Contreras pitched very well for the White Sox, racking up 204.2 innings with a 3.61 ERA (3.89 FIP). His ERA did rise to 4.27 in 2006, the final year of the contract he signed with the Yankees, though his FIP was right around his 2005 mark, 4.00. Though the Yanks’ staff was a bit better that year, they certainly could have used a performance like that in the middle of the rotation.

While the need to improve the pitching staff in 2004 was evident, the Yankees did not win in this trade. The pitcher they acquired was actually worse than the one they traded away. The move did save the Yankees about $15 million in future salaries, but considering the state of their pitching staffs in 2005 and 2006, I’m sure they gladly would have paid that money to Contreras. We can decidedly stick this one in the loss column.

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RAB Design Note

Completely unrelated to the topic at hand: We made a few design changes to the site tonight, and some of them are being a little bit pesky as they come online. Right now, the site is rendering a-OK for those using most browsers, but if the menu links are coming up unformatted with text bleeding into the main column, clear your browser cache and hit refresh. If that doesn’t do the trick, contact us with your browser and operating system info and a screenshot of the problem.

Newman charged with DUI in Tampa

Mark Newman, the Yanks’ senior vice president of baseball operations, was arrested Monday night on suspicion of a DUI. The Associated Press says the team exec refused to take a blood-alcohol test and was released on $500 bail. The Yankees say they’re investigating the situation, and Newman refused to comment. The last Yankee executive to get charged with a DUI was then-team general partner Steve Swindal. After his 2007 arrest and subsequent divorce from Jennifer Steinbrenner, Swindal left the team.

Jean Afterman honored as Woman of the Year

Via YankeesPR, Yankees’ assistant general manager Jean Afterman is being honored by Women in Sports and Events as one of it’s Women of the Year. Afterman has been Brian Cashman‘s primary assistant since 2001, and as far as I know, she’s more involved with the business aspect of the game (contract negotiations, etc), not necessarily player evaluation and what not.

Congrats to Afterman, being named Woman of the Year by any organization is a pretty big deal.