State of the RAB

Fellow dwellers in the series of tubes:

As we near the three-year anniversary of River Avenue Blues, I’d like to take a few moments to greet and thank everyone who has visited and supported us since our inception in February of 2007. We’ve come a long way since then. Our posts have grown greater in number and deeper in thought. Our audience has grown from few and quiet to many and loud — through not only comments, but emails, instant messages, our web form, and even in real life. For those of you have ambled by here recently, and even for those who have been here for years, this is who we are.

While this particular site launched in 2007, Ben, Mike, and I go back a bit further than that. We all started up our own baseball writing projects in the mid-00s, just because we loved writing about baseball. Sure, at times we each had aspirations of attracting a large audience, but none of us really expected it. It was more a form of catharsis, a way to deal with the day in, day out stress of the baseball season. The players get to vent that stress through physical performance. For us less athletic types, writing sometimes does the trick. It does for us, at least.

The baseball season is, thankfully, fast approaching, and changes will come with it. This seems to happen every year. A certain percentage of the audience checks out after they stop playing games, only to return six, but hopefully only five, months later, just in time for Opening Day. Some readers, intrigued by our non-stop hot stove coverage, tune out during the season, opting to enjoy the game for itself and not getting caught up in the tangle of daily analysis. We do keep many of those who discovered us during the hot stove, and that means the composition of our audience will change.

That won’t change the content. We’ll continue to write stories that interest us. Sometimes that involves a prospect. Sometimes it involves breaking down data. Sometimes it involves comparing players with various statistics. If you particularly like something, but especially if you don’t, email us and let us know. We also appreciate emails in regards to typos and other small errors. We aren’t to the point of hiring a full-time editor — hell, we don’t even really pay ourselves — so any corrections from the crowd are appreciated. If you have an issue with the data we used to analyze an issue, or a conclusion we drew from the data, that’s perfect for the comments section. It might make us think of the topic in another way, perhaps making our posts more complete in the future.

What will change, undoubtedly, between now and Opening Day is the comments section. Again, it happens all the time. It’s happened over the past year, and it will continue to morph and evolve. We have an excellent core of commenters who not only know baseball, but also know how to lighten the mood. As we get more and more comments, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor them. We want nothing more than a robust baseball discussion, but unfortunately there are others who do not. Allow me to elaborate.

Baseball incites argument. That’s good. We can all learn a lot from people whose opinions differ from our own. But, contrary to what many people think, not all opinions are created equal. The opinions which count for the most are those which are supported by evidence. As Tango likes to say, an opinion without evidence is bullshit. You can still hold said evidence-less opinion, but don’t expect it to garner much respect among our commenters.

If you hold an opinion and cannot back it up with evidence, we ask that you not act like a jackass about it. Accept it as just your opinion, with no basis in fact, and move on. There’s plenty to discuss. If you do continue to post evidence-less opinions, well, good for you. If you feel the need to do that, again, we just ask that you not act like a jackass about it. That’s the most important point, as you can see.

For the core commenters, we’re asking a bit more. By responding to jackasses, you’re legitimizing them. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen plenty of this — ashamedly, have been part of it once. It takes the focus off the baseball discussion and puts it onto the jackass. We do not want this. It generally leads to everyone acting like a jackass, and the comment thread devolves into an unreadable mass. Remember, we’re here to talk baseball, not act like tough guys on an internet message board.

As we specify in our commenting guidelines, we really appreciate you keep comments true to the topic of the post. If a conversation moves a certain way, keep it within that particular thread within the comments. Even then, we ask that it not get too far out of hand. For off-topic comments, we have an open thread every evening. We’ve also added an off-topic thread, which you can find in the navigation bar, and by clicking here.

To our readers who don’t use the comments section, we thank you every bit as much as our regular commenters. You’re welcome at any time to drop in and add to the conversation. We hope our threaded comments layout makes it easy to follow different conversations within the thread. We’re also working to make improvements on the layout, including re-adding the ability to see unread comments. Again, if you have any suggestions please contact us. We make it ridiculously easy to do so.

We’ll leave this post up overnight. Baseball will be back in the a.m. Thanks again for reading.

Open Thread: Official Winn

The slow time just before Spring Training can be hell for blog content, so I figured I’d pass along the news that Randy Winn is listed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster page at the official site, which confirms that he in fact passed his physical and is officially signed. Our Depth Chart is up to date.

The 40-man roster is now full, which means someone will have to head to DFA-ville before the Yankees can acquire another player. Looking at the list of the players, I’m guessing Edwar Ramirez would be the first to get the axe, however a spot would also open up if/when Jamie Hoffmann is returned to the Dodgers. Chris Garcia is dead to me, so he can follow Edwar out the door. Who’s after that, maybe Jon Albaldejo?

Anyway, use this as your open thread for the night. The Knicks and 4-43 Nets are both playing tonight, and rumor has it Derek Jeter is making an appearance on MLB Network’s Hot Stove program tonight. You know what to do, so enjoy the thread.

Looking at minor league defense

Sean at Pending Pinstripes is examining the Total Zone defensive ratings of the Yankees’ minor league teams from last season, one level at a time. Yesterday he covered the Rookie level GCL Yanks, and today he got to Short Season Staten Island. We’re dealing with small sample sizes at these levels, though it’s interesting to see how well (and how poorly) some guys performed in the field. Despite his 29 errors, Carmen Angelini actually graded out really well in Total Zone. Whether that suggests there’s a flaw with TZ or with the completely subjective nature of errors is a discussion for another day.

Make sure you check out Sean’s first two entries, and check back in for the rest of the series.

Yankees hitters against fly ball pitchers

On Monday we looked at how Yankees hitters fared against ground ball pitchers. In 187.1 innings, the Yankees’ offense hit ground ball pitchers hard, scoring 4.80 runs per nine innings. The sample included the top 13 ground ball pitchers in the AL, of which the Yankees faced 12. There are a few problems with this analysis, including the small samples against individual pitchers, and that many of the pitchers on the list can be defined by more than just their ground ball tendencies. Still, I’d like to get through one-dimensional pitcher types, then plot them and see how the Yankees fare against, say, ground ball pitchers with low walk rates.

Continuing the series, today we’ll look at how the Yankees fared against the top fly ball pitchers in the American League. Since the AL pitcher with the 10th highest fly ball rate, Jeff Niemann, sits at just around 40 percent, and since A.J. Burnett ranks 11th, we’ll go with the top 10 this time. These pitchers include, in descending order: Jered Weaver, Scott Baker, Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander, Jarrod Washburn, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, John Danks, Zack Greinke, and Niemann. Reluctantly, I’ll include Kevin Millwood, since the Yankees did not face Greinke, and also because Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia rank 13th and 14th.

The initial problem with this analysis is evident by looking at the FB% column. There’s an over three percent drop-off between Weaver and Baker, and a nearly four percent drop between Weaver and Guthrie. Further, there’s a nearly 12 percent difference between Nos. 1 and 10. And then there’s the sample size issue, but we’ve already noted that.

Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson both murdered the Yankees in a similar number of innings. I wonder if this is an effect of them pitching in the same series, perhaps catching the Yankees hitters in similar trends. Both had good seasons, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that they pitched well against the Yankees. In Jackson’s case, however, we see more extra base hits than singles. That seems curious, and I think it might be a little luck-involved. True to that, Jackson posted a .194 BABIP agains the Yanks.

Niemann presents another odd case. The Yankees sent 70 men to the plate against him and put 26 of them on base, a .371 OBP. They also swiped four bases and got caught only once. Yet just five of those 26 base runners came around to score, 19 percent. Overall, 769 batters faced Niemann this season and he allowed 253 of them to reach base, a .329 OBP. Yet 84 of those 253 came around to score, 33 percent. Again, it seems like Niemann got lucky with men on base against the Yankees.

Against Weaver it appears the Yankees got lucky, since his 6.05 RA against the Yankees sits far above 3.75 ERA (and, for equal comparison, 3.88 overall RA). He allowed 26 of 81 batters to reach base, an OBP of .321 (though B-R for some reason has it at .325). Of those 26 baserunners, 13 came around to score, 50 percent. Overall he allowed 266 of 822 baserunners to reach, a .302 OBP, and allowed 91 of them to score, 34 percent. The Yankees did have the top offense in baseball, which can account for this. But to score 50 percent of your base runners seems a bit high, especially when the pitcher — and a good pitcher at that — usually allows 34 percent to score.

(Oddly enough, Weaver held the Yankees to a .226 BABIP, against his .281 season-long total.)

Now that I’m getting more into this data, I’m more interested in the breakdowns than how the Yankees actually scored against these guys. It shows that it’s tough to find correlation in small samples, of course, but it also has led me to break down some of these guys further.

As for the fly ball stuff, the Yankees performed worse against the top fly ball pitchers than the top ground ball pitchers, though in about 40 fewer innings. Surprisingly, they hit more home runs against ground ball pitchers, 1.63 per nine innings, than against fly ballers, 1.36 per nine. Against ground ball pitchers they put 204 men on base and brought them around to score 100 times, or 49 percent. Against fly ball pitchers they put 153 men on base and scored 68 of them, or 44 percent.

Next up, we’ll look at the best strikeout artists in the league. Apologies again to Zack Greinke for his omission.

An old storyline for a new season

In two weeks, everything old will be new again. Pitchers and catchers will make their ways down to Tampa or Arizona. They’ll run; they’ll throw; they’ll have pitchers’ fielding practice; and everyone will champion the return of baseball for yet another year of America’s Pastime.

For many, Spring Training is the time to rehash old story lines. This player vows to have a better year. That player is in the best shape of his life. This team feels its their year. You know the drill. For the Yankees, Spring Training means … Joba Chamberlain Drama! Who would have guessed?

As we all know, Joba has been subjected to more hand-wringing over his development over the last three years than any pitcher should be. He come up to the Majors in 2007 when the Yankees were in desperate need of bullpen help, and because Joe Torre could not be trusted with his relievers, the Yanks instituted Joba Rules. Then, as they transitioned him into a starting role in 2008, they adjusted the Rules to fit an innings limit. Then, in 2009, when Joba still had to pitch to an innings limit and be ready for post-season service, the Yanks tried to cap his innings in August.

Throughout this approach, Joba’s numbers suffered. An ace starter in college and the Minors, he started out strong in 2007 and carried that through to August 2008 when he suffered a shoulder injury in Texas. For reasons never discussed — was he injured? did he change his mechanics? — Joba in 2009 never regained the velocity he had a starter in 2008. He struggled through a sub-par 2009, going 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA and just 133 strike outs in 157.1 innings pitched. His walks were up; his home run totals were; his effectiveness was down.

In the postseason, though, Joba seemingly rediscovered his form. He threw 6.1 innings over 10 games, struck out 7 and allowed just a pair of runs. He walked just one, and although opponents hit an ugly .333/.345/.630 against him in a very limited sample size, he seemed more aggressive on the mound. As many — including one who shall remain nameless — have assumed today, Joba isn’t guaranteed anything for 2010. He’ll face competition for the fifth starter spot, and many still would prefer to see the Yanks waste a live arm on some mythical game where the eighth inning is more important than the previous seven frames.

Joba, though, and the Yanks will have none of that for now. Chamberlain spoke yesterday with reporters and said all the right things. He won’t be on an innings limit in 2010, and he is set to fight for his starting job coming out of the gate. “It’s something that’s going to be a battle,” Chamberlain said. “The greatest part about it is it’s not only going to make guys fight for that No. 5 spot, but it’s going to make our team better. We’re going to push each other and continue to try to outwork each other. That’s the greatest part about this game; not only do you push one another to do better, but the team is going to be better for it. Whatever happens, happens. I hope they’re ready because I worked my tail off to get where I’m at and I hope they do the same.”

The Yanks’ brass have been committed to Joba as a starter, but the team is prepared to push him in Spring Training too. “We’ll put the best guy that we feel can fill that spot and give us the best chance to win,” Joe Girardi said. Does Sergio Mitre really fit that bill?

The Yanks will head to Tampa with Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin as possible starters, but Joba’s real competition is Phil Hughes. The Yanks’ other live arm emerged as the team’s primary set-up man last summer and would be all but guaranteed a rotation spot had the team not traded for Javier Vazquez. As it stands, one of those two will emerge as the front-runner for the spot, and as Hughes faces an innings limit, Joba has a leg up. Nothing is guaranteed, though, and Joba knows it. The loser of this fight will probably head to the pen until someone in the rotation gets hurt. For the Yankees, that’s a comforting luxury to have.

Prospect Profile: Caleb Cotham

Caleb Cotham | RHP

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

[Read more…]

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.