Brett Gardner’s spray chart before and after his thumb injury

Gardner with a pretty swing...and it came after his return from a fractured thumb. Photo credit: Bill Kostroun/AP

Small injuries can seriously impair a player. Not only does it stick him on the DL, but it can oftentimes linger and affect his play for weeks, months, or even years down the road. We often see this with wrist injuries — in fact, we’re hoping that Nick Johnson has finally fully recovered from his, allowing him to regain some of the power that was absent last year.

Any hand injury presents cause for concern. Just look at Coco Crisp. When the Red Sox traded for him before the 2006 season it looked like he was becoming a solid regular. He improved his batting average and OBP in 2004, and then added power to his game in 2005, finishing with a 117 OPS+. The next spring, however, he broke his finger and hasn’t been nearly the same since. The closest he’s come was in 2008 when he had a 93 OPS+.

Brett Gardner suffered a fractured thumb last summer, causing him to miss 43 days. This came at a bad time, as Gardner was finally heating up after starting the season in a slump. In April he hit .220/.254/.271 in 65 PA and lost his starting job to Melky Cabrera. From May 1 through his injury on July 27 he hit .298/.393/.454 in 166 PA. Upon his return he slipped back towards his April marks, .250/.308/.292 in 53 PA. We’re dealing in small samples here, but I’d still like too examine this a bit further.

Tommy Rancel at DRays Bay used the Texas Leaguers Pitch f/x tool to display B.J. Upton’s spray charts as he dealt with a shoulder injury. It’s a neat idea, seeing a player’s hit breakdown pre- and post-injury. Often we deal in small samples, but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine it. It means, instead, that it offers little predictive value. There are just so many random factors at play that can mess with a sample of this size.

Here’s Gardner’s spray chart from when he started heating up, May 1, through his injury on July 25:

To the shallow outfield he has a pretty even distribution. Clearly his power works to straightaway right and to the gap in right-center. He’ll never hit for power the opposite way, though that’s not of much concern for a player like Gardner. Other than the power hits, though, I think this is as even as you’re going to see. Even the outs are fairly even.

(See that green dot almost sitting on the left field line? Remember that one? Yeah, I do.)

Now for his spray chart after the injury:

Well, well. There seems to be an abundance of green in left field. Gardner hit the ball the other way far more frequently after his return. Again, this is in short sample. He saw only 224 pitches in that time, so it’s understandable that we might see an aberration. Maybe his thumb injury didn’t have anything to do with his lack of balls pulled to the outfield in September. Maybe he was seeing more pitches on the outside half. In fact, as you can see in the pitches he swung at and the pitches he took, that might be the case.

Even in 2008, during Gardner’s short stint in New York, he hit the ball to all fields. Here’s his spray chart for that year:

Did Gardner’s thumb injury affect his swing? As I said at the top of the post, and then again a few paragraphs above, it’s tough to say that with any certainty, given the small samples we’re dealing with. Something did change in September, though. Gardner went from spraying the ball evenly in the outfield to hitting balls up the middle and slapping them the other way. There might be a pitch bias on display, which makes me hesitant to declare the problem his thumb. There’s certainly a connection, so I wonder if Gardner, fully recovered, can return to the form he displayed from May through July.

Today is no Joba, no Hughes day

The fifth starter race has been an absolute drain in Yankeeland this past week, culminating yesterday when Phil Hughes was officially given the job. We all need a break from this, so we’re going to declare today No Joba, No Hughes Day. No talking about those two and their situation at all. There will be plenty of fresh content today, scroll down to see the latest post, just keep to conversations on topic. Thanks.

Looking at the Yanks’ projected defense

GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees’ brass have been preaching the mantra of “get younger and more athletic” for years now, and they have done so in each of the last two offseasons. They effectively replaced the trio of Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon (combined 2010 age: 111) with Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson (combined 2010 age: 88) while handing the 26-year-old Brett Gardner something close to a full-time job this year.

The improvement made with this transition is noticeable in more ways than one. First of all, it’s easier on the bottom line, even with Tex’s massive deal. Swisher and Granderson will combine to make $750,000 less this year than what the Yankees paid Damon by himself last year. Secondly, the younger players are less susceptible to the daily aches and pains associated with a 162 game season, and generally recover quicker than players on the wrong side of 35. Durability is a big part of it. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on the third way the young players are an improvement over the old dudes, and that’s defensively.

Last year, the Yankees posted a team UZR of -18.5, 18th best in the game (or more accurately, 12th worst). Sadly, that was a massive improvement from their -44.5 UZR in 2008, which was third worst in all the land. With Damon, and to a lesser extent the perpetually average Melky Cabrera elsewhere this year, the Yankees stand to improve some more on the defensive side of the ball.

Using Jeff Zimmerman’s UZR projections, we can get an idea of how the Yanks’ projected starters for the 2010 season should do with the leather. Remember, these are just projections based on a weighted regression of the last four year’s worth of data, and are in no way predictions. They’re just a fancy estimated guesses, really. The table, obviously, is on the left.

Because we’re looking at the total defensive production from the individual positions in 2009 and comparing it to just the projected starters for the upcoming season, we’re really comparing apples to … slices of apples.  More accurate than oranges, but not whole apples. Guys like Ramiro Pena, Randy Winn, (ugh) Marcus Thames, and who knows who else will make their mark throughout the season, for better or for worse. For us though, this is fine.

The real improvement comes in the outfield, which is good because new fourth starter Javy Vazquez and new fifth starter Phil Hughes are fly ball pitchers, as are bullpen mainstays David Robertson, Damaso Marte, and Al Aceves. Despite his struggles down the stretch last year, Granderson has been an above average defensive centerfielder his entire career, which is what the UZR projections see him being in 2010. Sliding Gardner over to left instantly improves the position, even if he undershoots his projection by a few runs. Nick Swisher will probably be the same Nick Swisher in right, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s still damn effective.

As for the infield, well that crew remains unchanged from last year except for one thing: they’re all a year older. Zimmerman’s projections are age adjusted, which is why they see 36-year-old Derek Jeter‘s defense dropping significantly despite the improvement he’s made in recent seasons. Shortstops that age who don’t decline with the glove are few and far between. Ditto 35-year-old third basemen. I expect Jeter and A-Rod to be collectively below average next year, though I’m hopeful it’ll just be slightly below rather than oh-my-goodness-this-is-Sarah-Jessica-Parker-ugly defense.

Cano and Tex are firmly in the primes of their career, and even though their UZR doesn’t always jive with what our eyes tell us, I think we can all agree they’re no worse than league average as a tandem. The Yankees will be fine on the right side of the infield both offensively and defensively as long as no one gets hurt.

The Yankees have come a long way since 2005, when they trotted out what was arguably the worst defense in baseball history. They’ve managed to do so while importing some long-term pieces on affordable contracts that are more than total zeroes with the bat. They figure to be even better in 2010, which can only help the pitching staff that posted the second best xFIP (4.23) in the American League last season.

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP

Cashman: Joba a ‘starter in the bullpen’

Is Joba Chamberlain a reliever for good? We’ve heard many opine that since the Yankees announced that Phil Hughes will be the fifth starter this season. The GM doesn’t believe it, though. As Newsday’s Anthony Rieber reports (subscription required), Cashman still believes Chamberlain is a starter. “He’s a starter in the bullpen. He can do both. He’s a starter who was just beaten out in the competition. That’s what we honestly believe, but we only had one spot.” That sounds about right. It does give me some faith that, should something happen to a current member of the rotation, Joba could, and should, be first in line to get a crack.

Open Thread: Nick Swisher FTW

With the Opening Night match-up between the Yankees and the Red Sox fast approaching, ESPN has started to roll out its on-air promotions. The first way to hit the World Wide Leader is a doozy, and Nick Swisher, obviously, steals the show.

The set-up: Clay Buchholz and actor Adam Scott are singing Sweet Caroline when the chorus comes up. They toss it over to Swisher who, well, you’ll see. He gives it right back to them as only Nick Swisher could do. Afterward, Buchholz steals Swisher’s laptop and runs away. Only part of this paragraph is true.

It might not as classic as the Old Spice commercial that always makes me laugh, but it’s a good one. Who can complain when the Yankees come out on top anyway?

Anyway, this is, as the title may give away, your open thread for the evening. The Devils host the Rangers tonight while the Islanders take on the Flames. The Knicks and Nets are both mercifully off tonight, and some of my favorites on NBC — Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock — are all new tonight. In the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent to each other.

Garcia dazzles in minor league outing

Frankie Piliere of AOL Fanhouse was in the building yesterday to watch Yankees’ farmhand Chris Garcia take on the Phillies in a minor league contest, and I think saying he was impressed is an understatement. “Garcia is a complete, three-pitch pitcher, and that is with three plus pitches,” he says. “I don’t like to throw around plus grades often, so to see a pitcher with three plus pitches is a real rarity.” Of course, stuff was never the issue with Garcia, it’s always about his ability to stay on the mound. He’s dealt with knee, elbow, and oblique issues over the last few years, and has thrown just 260.2 innings since being drafted in 2004, 112 of which came in 2005.

Hopefully he stays healthy this season and surprises us all by contributing to the big league team in some capacity. I’m not going to hold my breath, but you’re more than welcome to get excited. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Stats We Use: OPS+, wRC+, and ERA+

In previous installments of this series we’ve covered the basic offensive, defensive, and pitching stats we use when discussing player production. Those familiar with the statistics will recognize what it means when we say a player has a .355 wOBA. Those who aren’t, though, might have a bit of trouble determining exactly what that means, even if they’re familiar with the workings of the statistic. To make things easier, we have a number of stats which compare production to the league average. We’ll dive into these today.

OPS+

Baseball Reference has changed the way we view statistics. The site makes everything presentable and easy to access, so we can look up our favorite players and see exactly what they did. One statistic that B-R founder Sean Forman created was OPS+. OPS, as you likely already know, stands for On-Base Plus Slugging. Since the ability to get on base and the ability to hit for power represent two of the most important things a batter can do, mashing the two stats together made enough sense, even if it double-counts singles — not to mention combines two stats that have different denominators.

The other problem with OPS is that it deals with two statistics on different scales. The maximum OBP is 1.000, while the maximum SLG is 4.000. The answer, then, is to weight the statistics when combining. Forman went with (1.2*OPB) + SLG, and then placed that figure on a scale where 100 was league average. That made the stat easier to understand. Instead of having just a number, OPS+ put the number in context by comparing it to everyone else in the league. Now we know that when a player has a 120 OPS+ that he’s well above league average. We might not have been able to discern that by just seeing a, for example, .870 OPS by itself.

Improved as it may be, OPS+ is not perfect. For instance, Tom Tango believes that OPS+ still undervalues OBP, and that the calculation should be (1.8*OBP) + SLG. Even so, OPS+ is an improvement over straight OPS, not just because of the 1.2*OBP calculation, but also because of how easily it tells us what we want to know. But, perhaps there’s a better stat for this.

wRC+

Uh oh. Another stat with a lower-case letter. For some this might mean trouble. It’s not, though. In fact, it works right along with wOBA to provide us with a scaled view of player production.

The story of wRC+ doesn’t go back too far. In December Alex Remington wrote a wOBA primer, and Tango made a comment about one of Alex’s lines regarding wOBA in relation to OPS and OPS+. Later, in the comments, Tango said that he did not want wOBA+, but rather wRC+ — weighted Runs Created on a league scale. He used the BaseRuns formula to demonstrate how easy it would be to implement, and FanGraphs proprietor David Appelman (a great guy, really!) implemented it. The whole process took about a day. No joke.

The basics of wRC+ can be found in the wOBA primer. It uses the same system, basically, but instead of outputting a rate stat it outputs a counting stat, weighted Runs Created, or wRC. The number is park adjusted and scaled to the league. Like OPS+, 100 is league average. I prefer wRC+ to OPS+ not only because of the slight flaw in the OPS+ calculation, but because it assigns a proper value to each component, whereas OPS+ still uses the arbitrary measures of two for a double, three for a triple, etc.

ERA+

Like OPS+, ERA+ can be found at Baseball-Reference. This one won’t take but a paragraph to explain. Like OPS+, ERA+ is on a scale where 100 is league average. You can compute it right from home, too. Just take two minus the player ERA divided by the league ERA and multiple by 100. In other words: 100 * (2 – playerERA/leagueERA).* That’s literally it. The advantage, of course, is that you can determine how much better than average a pitcher was, no matter what the run environment.

* They did change ERA+ just yesterday. It produces the same results, in that the players are ranked the same. The formula change just makes ERA+ linear. That is, a player with a 122 ERA+ is 22 percent better than league average. The old way didn’t handle it like this. Sean Forman, proprietor of Baseball Reference, explains: “With the new formula, the equation is linear, so if the league ERA is 4.50 and you have one pitcher at 3.50, one at 3.00 and one at 2.50 you get ERA+’s of 122, 133 and one at 144 (one is 22% better than the league, one is 33%, and one is 44% better). It seems to me the numbers make a little more sense this way.”

I’d like to see this expanded to FIP. It shouldn’t be hard to create FIP+, and I do wonder sometimes why it’s not a readily available stat. Probably because FIP stands fine by its own, since it’s not really based on the same value scale as ERA. Still, I do like the concept of adding context by scaling to 100. It gives us a one-glance idea of how a player performs compared to his peers.

Next up

There will be one or two more posts in this series, touching on some other offensive and pitching measures. The ones in the series so far, though, are the ones we’ll primarily use.