Evaluating the DHs

This off-season, the Yankees, Angels and Rangers all landed themselves shiny new injury-prone but solid-hitting guys to man the DH spot. The Yanks picked up Nick Johnson and his .426 OBP, the Angels Hideki Matsui and his World Series MVP award and the Rangers Vlad Guerrero and his ability to hit any pitch. The Yanks like their guy because of his on-base prowess. He’ll hit second and give Mark Teixeira and A-Rod numerous opportunities to drive home runs. But what of the other two? Yesterday, Jay Gargiulo at Fack Youk analyzed the DH signings and came out a bit bearish on Vlad and Matsui. I predict, not too boldly, that the best one of the three will be whichever avoids the disabled list the longest this year.

A very Peanuts open thread

A timely comic strip from 1969. (Click to enlarge).

Next month, the comic strip world will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Charles M. Schulz, creator and illustrated of Peanuts. His ragtag bunch of characters are a part of American culture, and nothing embodied that more so than Charlie Brown’s attempts at baseball. I say “attempts” in the loosest of ways because Charlie and his team made the Kansas City Royals look great.

Year in and year out, Charlie Brown will lead his team to the baseball diamond, and year in and year out, his team would lose badly. This week, Larry Granillo at Wezen Ball decided to figure out just how bad Charlie Brown’s teams really were. Granillo offered up this introduction:

For fifty years, Charlie Brown took the field with his makeshift ballclub – the piano playing Schroeder behind the plate, the apathetic Lucy in centerfield, the blanket-toting Linus at second, and Snoopy, the slobbery superstar, at shortstop – and took beating after beating. Finding themselves on the wrong side of scores like 123-0 and 93-0 on a regular basis, the Peanuts crew was just never the talented powerhouse that Charlie Brown hoped for. But boy did they try. Few managers, and few teams, would have the heart to go out there day-after-day against such odds, but Charlie Brown and his crew were forever optimistic. It was endearing.

But losing takes it toll – if not on Charlie Brown’s spirits then, at the very least, in the record books. After decades of losing and seemingly-countless knockdown line-drives up the middle (the first one came in 1963), the stats can’t look too favorably on Team Peanuts. However, save for a short time when Linus was also team statistician, no one has ever taken the time to compile their stats. Granted, they aren’t going to be pretty, but someone should find the answer to the questions: how many games did Charlie Brown’s team lose? how many did they win? how many times did Charlie Brown get knocked over by a line-drive? and so on…

As anyone familiar with the Peanuts could tell you, the results are not pretty. So far, Granillo is through two decades, the 1950s and the 1960s, and Brown’s Nine are on par with the Mets. They managed to win a game in 1958 but ended the decade 1-25. By the end of the 1960s, they are a cumulative 7-85 in definite outcomes.

Anyway, check out Larry’s work. He traces the losses, the forfeits, the wins and even a mention of Charlie Brown’s walking 11 batters in a row. Eat your heart out, Retrosheet.

So this is your open thread tonight. Be good to each other. The Islanders are at home against the Red Wings, and the Devils and Rangers face off in the World’s Most Famous Arena. In light of this, it might be worth tuning in to the first ten minutes of Conan’s Tonight Show also.

KLaw: Just stick with Gardner

RAB fave Keith Law chimes in on the Yanks’ left field situation in Rumor Central today, saying that the Yanks should just stick with Brett Gardner in left because of his defense. “Either Nady or (Reed) Johnson represent marginal improvements that may not justify the cost,” says KLaw. “Neither is really a full-time player. Johnson is strictly a platoon player, and can back up Granderson, but they have Gardner for that. Nady, even when healthy, was a platoon guy until ’08.” The Yanks’ offense is good enough that they could carry a black hole in left, and there’s no reason for them to fix something that we aren’t completely sure is broken yet.

“Eventually, some other option will emerge,” KLaw adds, “and there’s no reason for the Yanks to spend money on left field simply for the sake of spending money.”

Don’t disparage the strikeout

Don’t you hate it when a player strikes out? Not only did he make an out, the worst single outcome of an at-bat, but he couldn’t even manage to make contact. It makes him seem so futile. Many fans loathe high strikeout players for this very reason. They see the swing and miss, and they think futility. The typical fan reaction to a strikeout, however, is disproportional to the actual detriment it causes the team.

In this morning’s post about the skills each Yankee possesses, I linked to a Lookout Landing post that discusses how a player provides value to his team. Again, the whole post merits a read, but there’s one point that stuck out to me in particular, and I didn’t want to lump it in with the skills post. You might recognize the first part of this paragraph, so I’ll emphasize the last two sentences.

Some of these paths will be more appealing than others. Fans generally like power, contact, and discipline. Fans generally don’t like free swingers or strikeouts. If Player A achieves value X with home runs, walks, and groundouts, while Player B achieves value X with doubles, defense, and strikeouts, Player A will generally be better-received, even though the two made equivalent contributions to the team. Fans want value, but they also want style. They want their players to both be good and look good. In other words, fans care about both qualities of imperfections: appearance and magnitude.

The desire for a stylish appearance, I think, leads fans to unfairly criticize high strikeout players. There have been studies showing that strikeouts aren’t worse than other types of outs. But studies, especially studies involving math, rarely succeed in convincing people that a long-held belief is wrong. Neither will a strong argument that doesn’t user numbers, but that won’t stop me from trying.

Whether a player grounds out, flies out, or strikes out, that still counts as one of the team’s 27 outs. No matter how it happens, if the first batter of the game makes an out his team has only 26 left. The team also has two outs remaining before it has to erase all progress and start over. Outs, then, are a precious, scarce resource. Using one, whether the ball is put in play or not, represents an unfavorable outcome.

All outs are bad. Strikeouts are one subcategory of outs. Since each type of out equally subtracts from the team’s remaining total, then why should we disparage strikeouts while not caring so much about fly outs or ground outs? Again, I pin it on the emotional reaction taking precedence in our minds, but I’ve heard some empirical arguments against the strikeout.

Most commonly, people note that a strikeout cannot advance a baserunner. With a runner on third and less than two outs, a strikeout does not score the runner. With a runner on second and less than two outs, a strikeout does not place the runner on third base. Yet there’s another side to this argument. With a runner on first and less than two outs, a strikeout does not cause a double play. We could perform a study to show whether these aspects even out for high- and low-contact players, sure. But didn’t I mention earlier that studies of this nature won’t convince the masses? So, instead, let’s take a glance at some relevant players.

Nick Swisher is a low-contact, high-strikeout player. Robinson Cano is a high-contact, low-strikeout player. I can’t find a readily-available split for bases occupied plus outs situation, but Baseball Reference at least has the most important situation, a runner on third and less than two outs. In those situations Cano came to the plate 32 times and went 5 for 27 with a walk, 6 strikeouts, and 4 sacrifice flies. Swisher, the guy you can’t trust in that situation because he strikes out too much, came to the plate 39 times and went 8 for 25 with 8 walks, just 3 strikeouts, and 6 sac flies.

Since Cano hit very poorly with runners in scoring position, perhaps we can look to another example of a contact hitter in that situation. Melky Cabrera had the lowest strikeout percentage among Yankees last season. In situations with a runner on third and less than two outs he excelled, coming to the plate 40 times and going 13 for 28 with 6 walks, 4 strikeouts, and 4 sac flies. That’s very good, obviously, but in terms of the ever-important task of getting the runner home, Swisher was better, if only slightly. He also struck out less. In fact, over the 179 times in his career he’s faced a runner on third with less than two outs situation, Swisher has struck out just 28 times, or 15.6 percent of plate appearances. His career strikeout rate sits at just above 21 percent.

What about the flipside? Again, without a Retrosheet database it’s difficult to determine exactly how many double play situations each player faced. But, since this is an example and not a study we’ll just use the rough indicator of men on base. Swisher came to the plate 269 times with men on and grounded into 13 double plays, or in just around 5 percent of situations. Melky had 247 plate appearances with men on and grounded into 15 double plays, or in 6 percent of opportunities. Cano, as you can imagine, was worse, coming to the plate 313 times with men on and grounding into 22 double plays, 7 percent of the time.

Again, this is not an exhaustive study, but rather a glance at a situation using players from the 2009 Yankees. But there are already studies, linked above, that prove that point with far more exhaustive methods. My point in this is to show that even though Nick Swisher is a high strikeout player, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a shoe-in to strikeout in a situation where a run can score without a hit. It’s also to illustrate that even if Swisher, or a similar player, misses some of those opportunities, he adds value in a different way. Avoiding double plays means more chances for the team to score runs.

Appearance does matter, but only to our emotions. Baseball takes us on a journey that includes terrifying lows, dizzying highs, and creamy middles.1 That’s a large part of how we enjoy the game. We — at least I — don’t watch 162 games because it’s fun to watch players rack up numbers. The emotional ride of each game, of each season, of the game in perpetuity, draws us in and makes us fans for life. Following the numbers only enhances that joy. I scream as loud as the next guy when Swisher strikes out in a big spot, but I don’t let that affect how I evaluate him as a player. He and players like him bring plenty to the table.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

1Footnoting is also cool because I can source my Simpsons references. (Up)

Stress: The other performance enhancer

One thing that’s been programmed into the world of sports is the idea of “clutch,” that some players perform better under pressure than others. It exists, absolutely, but whether or not it’s impact is properly weighed is another topic for another time. There is no better example of an athlete handling stress and anxiety than Mariano Rivera, who always appears in control and never seems to change his demeanor. When you watch him, you’re unable to tell if it’s a one run playoff game or the third inning of a meaningless Spring Training game.

In a guest post at THT, Dr. Rob Dobrenksi – a licensed Psychologist in NYC and Shrink Talk author – wrote about anxiety and the different ways it can affect a player’s performance. The basic idea is that anxiety is actually beneficial to a player’s performance because the adrenaline rush gives them “an edge,” as he calls it. However, every player has a point where too much anxiety is detrimental to their performance. Think of the anxiety-performance relationship as a upside-down U-shaped curve, like the one in the graph from the THT article to the left. For some players, like Mo, the peak of their U-curve is way to the right. For others, it’s closer to the left.

Dr. Dobrenski mentions that there are three main components of anxiety, one of which is the inner monologue we all engage in. “If I don’t drive in this run, I’ll be the goat and probably be on the bench tomorrow” is an example. People and athletes are taught to “monitor and challenge” their inner monologue, which admittedly is easier said than done. Instead of worrying about being the goat, they’re taught to think “I can do this, and if I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world,” especially when it comes to something we’ve done countless times before, like Chuck Knoblauch throwing the ball to first.

Alex Rodriguez is perhaps the biggest poster boy for failing under pressure. That is, until this past October of course. Perhaps the peak of his U-curve was well on the left of the graph until he dealt with his PED demons and took some of the weight off his shoulders, shifting his U-curve to the right. I’m no doctor, athough I do play one on a blog, and I’m willing to bet your ability to deal with stress is greatly affected by a whatever else is going on in your life. In fact, I know it is.

The bottom line is that stress and anxiety are completely normal human emotions. We’ve all been stressed out at work, and it certainly effects how we perform, one way or the other. Baseball players are no different, it’s just that their performance under stress is subject to far more public scrutiny. Some anxiety is good for performance, but too much is a problem, no matter who you are.

Yankees sign Royce Ring, David Winfree

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees have signed lefty reliever Royce Ring and utility player David Winfree to minor league deals. Ring’s name should be familiar, he’s bounced around quite a bit and spent some time with the Mets. The 29-year-old was the 18th overall pick in 2002, but he hasn’t been able to sustain any type of success in the big leagues. He’s struggled with control, posting a 53-40 K/BB ratio in 65.2 big league innings, and it’s 191-80 in 213.1 IP at the Triple-A level. Ring’s splits against lefties are okay, but nothing special. Some will point to him as a potential replacement for Phil Coke, but I think he’s more of a replacement for Zach Kroenke.

The 24-year-old Winfree is a career .270-.318-.442 hitter in the minors, .273-.317-.460 in Triple-A. He’s spent considerable time at first, third, and in right field in his career, and TotalZone says he sucks at all three spots. I assume the righty hacker is going to take over the Eric Duncan role of filling in at the different corner every day for Triple-A Scranton.

Our Depth Chart has been updated to reflect all the recent minor moves.

Sherman: Yankees have $2M to spend on left field

The Yankees are telling agents that they only have $2M to spend on upgrading left field, according to Joel Sherman. No matter how much we dream of a Johnny Damon return, there’s zero chance that’ll happen if Sherman’s report is accurate. $2M isn’t going to buy you much on the free agent market (about half a win), and frankly if that’s all the money they have to spend, then I’d rather just see them save it for a potential mid-season pickup and go into the year with Brett Gardner and Jamie Hoffmann battling it out.

Yeah, Brian Cashman successfully lobbied Hal Steinbrenner to expand the payroll last year for Mark Teixeira and Andy Pettitte, however Sherman notes that the Yanks had agreed to a trade for Mike Cameron last July, but Little Stein wouldn’t take on the extra $5.5M in salary. Maybe people should stop blowing off the concept of a payroll limit after all.