Open Thread: Are you ready for some football?

(Photo Credit: The RAB Bullpen)

Yankee Stadium isn’t looking much like a baseball park these days. The infield is gone, the pitcher’s mound has disappeared, and there are giant goal posts behind the plate and in centerfield. Army and Notre Dame meet in the Stadium on Nov. 20th, then a month later the Pinstripe Bowl will be played between still unknown teams. Kinda looks weird, no? Hey, anything that makes the Yankees money, I’m all for it. Derek Jeter‘s inevitable contract won’t pay for itself.

Anyway, here’s is your open thread for this fine evening. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all playing in various cities at various times. Chat about whatever you like, and go ahead and be as vicious and you want.

Lackawanna County approves sale of Scranton franchise

An artist's rendering of the proposed renovations to Scranton's PNC Field.

Lackawanna County, owners of the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise, have agreed to sell the team to the Yankees and Mandalay Baseball Properties for $14.6 million. The new owners will sign a 30-year lease with Scranton and have pledged $40 million for stadium renovations, David Singleton of The Times Tribune reported last night.

The Yankees had originally expressed interest in purchasing the team back in September, but political wrangling held up the sale for a few months. Even still, Luzerne County, passive part-owners of the Scranton franchise, is making noises about holding up the deal. That’s Pennsylvania county politics for you.

As Donnie Collins outlines, the sale will come with new terms attached. In addition to the stadium renovation funds, the team’s rent will increase from $150,000 to $750,000, and the least continues an option that could keep the franchise in place for 50 years. The Scranton stadium authority could repurchase the ballpark if the franchise relocates or ends its Yankee affiliation. New York, however, has been inclined to keep the team in Scranton due to the proximity factor. It is only a two-hour drive from the Majors to the AAA.

Overall, the Yankees are committing $37 million to the region, and while local politicians are wary about chipping in a few million in taxpayer dollars as part of the matching funds for the stadium renovation, they recognize its better than losing the team.

As for the renovations, they are extensive. Stadium capacity will drop from 10,500 to between 8000-8500, and the entire park will be overhauled. David Singleton offers up this take:

Under the proposal, only four elements of the existing stadium would be retained: the lower seating bowl, the playing field, the home locker room and the parking lots, Mr. Schmitt said. Everything else, including the upper-level deck, would be demolished.

The rebuilt stadium would have an elevated single- or double-tier of suites, club seats and media facilities behind home plate, but the rest of the seating would be on or below a concourse that would wrap around the entire playing field like a promenade, he said.

The promenade concept, now popular at many major and minor league stadiums, allows fans to view the game from multiple vantage points, he said. “The idea of a promenade lends itself, we think, to the very leisurely and social aspect of attending a ballgame,” [architect Craig] Schmitt said.

It’s a safe bet to assume that the Yanks will extend their PDC with Scranton well beyond the current 2014 expiration date. For minor league fans in Central Pennsylvania, baseball is seemingly there to stay.

Jeter, Cano Teixeira take home Gold Glove awards

Three Yankee fielders — but arguably not the most deserving one on the team — took home AL Rawlings Gold Glove Awards this afternoon. Derek Jeter took home his fifth award while Mark Teixeira captured his fourth overall and second straight Gold Glove. Robinson Cano, an MVP candidate in his own right, grabbed his first at second base. Brett Gardner, with his 12 assists and an AL-leading 22.3 UZR in left field, was not honored.

In addition to the three Yankee winners, Ichiro Suzuki took home his record-tying 10th straight Gold Glove while Joe Mauer nabbed his third straight award and Mark Buehrle and Evan Longoria both won for the second straight year. Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, now a free agent, won his first award and Seattle’s Franklin Gutierrez took home the honors as well.

“It is particularly gratifying to be recognized for defense, as it is something I take a lot of pride in and am constantly working to improve,” Jeter said in a statement this afternoon.

The Gold Glove, of course, usually lead to a lot of hand-wringing because the awards aren’t a true measure of defensive prowess. Unlike the Cy Young, MVP and Rookie of the Year awards chosen by the BBWAA, baseball’s players and coaches vote on the Gold Glove winners, and the award is as much a popularity contest based upon name recognition and offensive production as it is on defensive ability. As Tim Marchman wrote last year, we should give the Gold Gloves the same deference movie buffs give the Academy Awards.

If we were going to nitpick the awards, though, we can. Based on UZR — a flawed metric — the following fielders should have won: Gardner, Crawford and Suzuki in the OF; Daric Barton at first base (Mark Teixeira had a negative UZR in 2010); Mark Ellis or Orlando Hudson at second; and Kevin Kouzmanoff at third. Pitchers and catchers should be assessed on non-UZR metrics. Gutierrez is an excusable choice but Brett Gardner wuz robbed.

And because it’s much in the news these days, this award shouldn’t impact the Yanks’ contract negotiations with Derek Jeter. His winning simply highlights how the Gold Glove process is broken. Few, if any, Yankee fans would put forward a compelling argument that Jeter deserves the award, but baseball seems content to allow the process to move forward without any attempt at achieving an objective standard. It simply means we won’t put much stock in the award.

Anyway, congrats to the three Yankee winners. Deserved winners or not, this team’s defense has come a long way since the mid-2000s.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Time for a Randy Choate reunion?

Not long after the 2010 season came to an end, Brian Cashman let it be known that he’s looking to add a second lefty reliever behind Boone Logan next year. Damaso Marte won’t start throwing until after the All Star break because of shoulder surgery, nevermind rejoin the team and be productive. For all intents and purposes, the Yanks should consider him a non-factor for 2011. If he manages to contribute anything down the stretch, it’s a bonus.

Since the Yankees already have $4M committed to Marte and what could end up being another $1M committed to Logan (he’s arbitration eligible for the second time), I don’t expect them to go for a big name lefty reliever. Scott Downs (Type-A), Arthur Rhodes (A), Brian Fuentes (B), and Pedro Feliciano (B) figure to be the top names thrown around, but Rhodes was the cheapest of that group last year at $2M. There’s no reason to think any of them will take a pay cut after how they performed in 2010, and all but the 41-year-old Rhodes will likely get a multiyear deal this winter. There’s little benefit to signing a middle reliever for several guaranteed years; the Yankees have learned this the hard way with Kyle Farnsworth, Steve Karsay, and of course Marte.

I was originally planning to look at some of the second and even third tier free agent LOOGY options in this post, but after my initial research I came to an unsurprising conclusion: they all suck. Seriously, pretty much all of them. Joe Beimel can’t miss a bat to save his life, Dennys Reyes puts way too many guys on base, Bruce Chen is Bruce Chen, Mike Hampton … you get the point. There’s only player that stood out from the pack, and it’s an old buddy of ours.

Now 35 years old, Randy Choate originally broke in with the Yankees way back in 2000 after they selected him in the fifth round of the 1997 draft. He was often miscast as a long reliever under Joe Torre’s watch, which is why 231 (or 57.9%) of the 399 batters he faced in his Yankee career were righthanded. Choate bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues from 2000 through 2003, eventually being dealt to the Montreal in the first Javy Vazquez trade.

The Expos didn’t keep him long, trading him to the Diamondbacks for John Patterson during Spring Training the next year. Choate spent parts of four seasons in Arizona, again going back and forth between Triple-A and big leagues without being able to establish himself. The D’Backs cut him after the 2006 season, and he signed minor league deals with the Twins, D’Backs again, and Brewers. It wasn’t until he landed in the Rays organization (on another minor league deal) that things started to break his way.

Tampa started Choate in Triple-A last year, but they quickly called him up in May and made him a bullpen mainstay. Unlike Torre and whoever was running the show in Arizona, Joe Maddon seemed to understand that a side-arming lefty with a mid- to high-80’s fastball probably isn’t the guy you want to face righty batters. Eighty-three of the 142 batters Choate faced in 2009 (58.5%) were left-handed, and he held them to a .190 wOBA, setting down more than a quarter of them on strike three. When lefties did manage to put in play again him, 68.5% of them hit it on the ground.

The Rays gave Choate his first guaranteed big league contract in half-a-decade last winter, signing him to a one-year deal worth $700,000 to avoid arbitration. Maddon wisely used him primarily against lefties again this year, this time to an extreme. Of the 187 batters Choate faced in 2010, 138 of them (73.8%) were left-handed. Choate again did a great job of keeping them in check, leading the league with 85 appearances and holding lefties to a .261 wOBA with 9.17 K/9. Again, his ground ball rate was an astronomical 61.8%, far above league average. It’s not often that balls beat into the ground go for extra base hits.

For the first time in his career, Choate now hits the free agent market on a high note. He’s got two very good seasons behind him, and teams are perpetually searching for quality left-handed relievers. Choate’s familiar with the Yankees and the AL East and the Yankees are familiar with him, so perhaps that prior relationship gives Cashman a bit of an advantage. Strikeouts and ground balls are very desirable in the New Stadium, so there’s a pretty good fit here. He’s almost certain to be a more cost effective option than guys like Fuentes or Feliciano.

What Went Wrong: Brett Gardner

Gardner likes to flip his bat after striking out (Paul Sancya/AP)

Mike set the stage in his post on what went right with Brett Gardner:

Gardner showed up to Dodger Stadium the proud owner of a .321/.401/.408 (.373 wOBA) batting line on the morning of June 27th, but he took a Clayton Kershaw fastball off his right wrist in his second plate appearance of the game.

In reaching that .373 wOBA, Gardner had pulled off a fantastic month of June. In his 72 PA he hit .383/.472/.533, by far the best month in his short career. The hit by pitch ended that month a few days early, but he was back in the starting lineup on July 1, ready to continue his assault on opponents’ pitch counts.

When a player sustains a wrist injury we often fear for his power. So many players have seen their power completely sapped because of wrist troubles. The Yankees’ very own Nick Johnson presented such a case. He underwent season-ending wrist surgery in 2008 and came back in 2009 to produce a mere .114 ISO; his career mark to that point was .187. Gardner appeared to put those fears to rest in just his third game back from the injury. He hit a grand slam off Toronto’s Ricky Romero. The next day he hit another homer, though that was of the inside-the-park variety.

One home run by itself, even from a player who does not normally hit them, does not necessarily signal something about a player’s condition. Those two homers — one of which should have been a caught ball — represented Gardner’s only extra base hits in his first 68 PA back from the injury. During that time he hit just .185/.353/.296. The next eight games saved his month; in those 29 PA Gardner hit three doubles, which improved his month-long ISO to .117, which ended up being his second highest of the season. He also produced a .141 ISO in September. So much for the wrist injury effect.

While a power dip might not have coincided with the wrist injury, a heightened strikeout rate did. Gardner did strike out in 20 percent of his AB in June, a jump from his 14.7 percent rate in the first two months, but given his other numbers that was fine. He was making fewer outs and hitting for more power. You trade that for strikeouts without hesitation. But from July through September Gardner lost those power and on-base gains while seeing a significant uptick in his strikeout rate, 26.3 percent. That’s not a good thing for a guy who can create favorable situations when he puts the ball in play.

Still, it’s tough to pin the causation of Gardner’s rising K rate on the wrist injury. As you can see, it had been a rising trend all season long:

Gardner's strikeout rate

Might pitchers have figured out to start throwing him more strikes, since he can’t do much damage with them? Conventional wisdom might suggest that, but Gardner’s walk rate says something else:

Gardner's walk rate

I’m not sure what this says about how pitchers approached Gardner. It might appear as though he got a lot less aggressive. Fewer pitches swung at could lead to more looking strikeouts and more walks at the same time. But that wasn’t necessarily the case with Gardner. Prior to June 27 Gardner saw 1,227 pitches. He swung at 391 of them, about 32 percent. After June 27 he saw 1,355 pitches and swung at 423 of them, 31.2 percent. The biggest difference is in his swing and miss percentage, which went from 2.4 percent before the injury to 3.5 percent afterward.

Gardner’s spray chart changed around the same time as the injury as well. We’re dealing with half-season samples, so there’s nothing definitive in what we’re seeing. But it does appear suspicious that Gardner stopped hitting as many balls to shallow center and right, spots at which he got hits in the first half.

First half spray chart
Second half spray chart

We can still see that patch in left where Gardner slaps the ball for base hits, but we don’t see that shallow belt that led to so many hits in the first half. What we do see, though, is a number of balls fielded deeper in the outfield. While the focus of this post is on the negatives of Gardner’s second half, the deeper hit balls has to be taken as a positive.

Again, while we’re looking at the wrongs of Gardner’s season, we need to put them in perspective. Part of his second half woes stem from a diving BABIP. As you can see:

Gardner's BABIP

I’m not sure exactly what caused the dip in BABIP. Maybe Gardner was swinging at poorer pitches — his whiff rate does suggest that. Maybe he was getting unlucky — the subsequent rise towards the end of the season does point in that direction. My best guess is that he just went through a normal slump, exacerbated by the wrist injury. Thankfully, towards the end of the season he started to look more like he did in April.

The title of this article is What Went Wrong, but that isn’t to say Gardner’s season went wrong. It actually went great on the whole. But there were some issues during the season that perhaps prevented him from performing to the best of his abilities. There is a sentiment among some fans — I’m not sure how widespread — that Gardner is nothing more than a fourth outfielder and that he hit over his head in 2010. I beg to differ. During the off-season I ranked among the “you can’t count on Gardner” crowd, but after watching him for a full season and examining him closely I feel differently. I think Gardner can be a solid option both in the lineup and in the field.

That isn’t to say that his season went perfectly. It obviously didn’t. In the second half he swung and missed more often, which led to more and more strikeouts. A guy with Gardner’s speed, and lack of power, needs to put the ball in play more often. But even as he faltered he ended up with a spectacular season. I don’t see any reason, barring injury, why we can’t expect him to improve in 2011.

What Went Right: Brett Gardner

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s been quite some time since the Yankees had a true speedster in their lineup. Alfonso Soriano thrice stole 35+ bases in pinstripes, but his ability to flirt with 40+ homers annually is where the majority of his value lied. The Yanks tried to incorporate Brett Gardner into their lineup last season, but he eventually lost his job to Melky Cabrera and settled into more of a reserve role. With Johnny Damon in Detroit and Melky in Atlanta, Gardner was given another chance to earn a full-time job in the Yankee outfield, and this time he didn’t disappoint.

Gardner started his season off in style, slashing a single to the opposite field off Josh Beckett in his very first at-bat of 2010. Two innings later he battled the Red Sox righthander for eight pitches before slashing another single to left, this time driving in a run. Derek Jeter followed that up with a single to put men on the corners, and with Nick Johnson staring at an 0-2 count, Jeter broke for second and Victor Martinez tried to gun him down. Gardner broke for home instantly and beat the relay to the plate, making him the first Yankee to steal home since Alex Rodriguez back in 2004. Two at-bats into the season, a professional wreaker of havoc of born.

Coming into 2010 as a complete unknown, Gardner established himself as the Yanks’ everyday leftfielder by hitting .323/.397/.385 (.377 wOBA) through the season’s first month. He tormented opposing pitchers with his patience, leading baseball by seeing 4.61 pitches per plate appearance (Daric Barton was a distant second at 4.40) and finishing second in the league by making contact on 97.5% of the swings he took at pitches in the zone. His 2.9% swing-and-miss rate was the fourth lowest in the game. Gardner’s overall on-base percentage of .383 led the Yankees, and only two AL outfielders (Josh Hamilton and Shin-Shoo Choo) bested that mark. Once he reached base, he made life even more miserable for the fellas on the mound, swiping 47 bases (83.9% success rate). Only three big leaguers stole more.

A two-way threat, Gardner brought his Gold Glove caliber defense to leftfield in deference to the veteran Curtis Granderson, who assumed the centerfield job from the 2009 Gardbrera mash up. It’s only a one year sample, but Gardner led all of baseball, regardless of position, with a +22.3 UZR and +39.7 UZR/150. He ranked third in both John Dewan’s +/- system (+18) and in out-of-zone plays (78) among corner outfielders, and his defensive exploits earned him a Fielding Bible Award.

Gardner showed up to Dodger Stadium the proud owner of a .321/.401/.408 (.373 wOBA) batting line on the morning of June 27th, but he took a Clayton Kershaw fastball off his right wrist in his second plate appearance of the game. It all went downhill for Gardy offensively after that, and Joe will break it all down a little later today. But for now, this post is meant to acknowledge Gardner’s awesome season, not focus on his second half. At 5.4 fWAR he was the 19th most valuable player in all of baseball in 2010 and seventh most valuable among full-time outfielders. There’s no other way to describe it; Brett Gardner’s 2010 season was a smashing success for both him and the Yankees.

Mailbag: A long-term deal for Hughes?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Tommy asks (via Twitter): do yanks go y2y with hughes or try to lock him up? wang theory or cano theory? what arb # will he submit?

With young players taking over the baseball landscape and becoming more and more important by the day, teams are locking up their best 20-somethings to long-term deals that accomplish two things. One, it gives the team some cost certainty since the arbitration process can be tricky. Secondly, and more obviously, it gives the player financial security in exchange for the chance of large arbitration paydays. There’s definitely something to be said for being set for life before your 30th birthday. The guys over MLBTR recently put together two posts looking at why young starters are extended and why they aren’t, so make sure they give those a read. Teams are basically trading increased risk for potential savings.

Phil Hughes is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, so the days of him being a cheap player pulling down a salary in the mid-six figures are over. He’s got a healthy amount of big league experience to his credit (369 IP to be exact) and will now be making a salary more in line with his talent. Granted, he’ll still be criminally underpaid compared to players on the open market, but that’s how this business works. I plan on looking at his arbitration case a little deeper in the next week or two, but expect him to earn somewhere in the neighborhood for $2M in 2011, or a 400% raise.

The Yankees have only signed one player to a long-term guaranteed contract through his arbitration years in the last decade or two, and that’s Robbie Cano. They signed him to a four-year deal worth a guaranteed $30M before the 2008 season, buying out his four seasons of arbitration eligibility (he was a Super Two) and potentially two more years of free agency if his 2012 ($14M) and 2013 ($15M) options are picked up. That deal looked a little questionable at first, but after Robbie’s stellar 2009 and 2010 efforts, it’s turned out to be a bargain for the pinstripers.

They also had the option of signing Chien-Ming Wang to a similar deal, which seemed like a logical thing to pursue on the heels of his consecutive 19 win seasons. Arbitrators love wins, so CMW had the goods to land himself a nice payday. Instead the Yanks went year-to-year with the righty, and ended up saving themselves millions after he broke down rather catastrophically, starting in the 2008 season.

That’s generally been the team’s policy, to go year-to-year and minimize the risk. They certainly have the financial wherewithal to pay large arbitration raises and I’m sure they’ll happily do so for productive players, but they’re also covering their asses in case of a physical breakdown or inexplicable ineffectiveness. Just looking around the league, contracts given to young pitchers have been hit or miss. For every Adam Wainwright (four years, $15M) there’s a Rich Harden (four years, $9M), an Ian Snell (three years, $8.6M) for every Jon Lester (five years, $30M), a Nick Blackburn (four years, $14M) for every Ubaldo Jimenez (four years, $10M). They all seem like great ideas at the time, but not too many of them end up being worth it for the team.

There’s really no reason to expect the Yankees to buy out Hughes’ arbitration years with a long-term deal right now, it goes against everything they’ve done in the past. Cano was the exception, not the norm. And it’s hard to blame them. Like I said, they’re protecting themselves by remaining flexible with his contract situation year after year. You’re not going to find a bigger Phil Hughes fan than me, but given how young he is (especially coming off a career high workload), there’s no reason for the team to lock themselves into a deal just yet. For now, just sit back and enjoy watching the kid pitch. Let the Yanks worry about his contract status.