What each 2009 Yankee brought to the table

Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer. – Ted Williams

We all know that baseball players fail more often than they succeed. Our parents and coaches teach it to us at a young age. We see it every day when players ground out, pop out, strike out, and even invent new ways to make outs. The backs of baseball cards, their percentages expressed in decimal format, reveal this to us. Sure, we still get angry when our favorite player — or, better yet, a player we dislike — strikes out. Even though our rational mind comprehends the rate of failure in baseball, our emotions still react as though we expect the player to succeed every time.

Last week, Jeff at Lookout Landing1 wrote an article on this subject through the lens of player evaluation. Because failure occurs more frequently than success, we tend to harp on a player’s shortcomings while sometimes ignoring what he contributes. And what a player contributes can come in many forms, as Jeff says.

Now, there are a million different ways for a player to accumulate value. He can draw a lot of walks, or hit a lot of singles, or hit a lot of homers, or play awesome defense, or steal eighty bases, or whatever. There is no one mold for a valuable position player. There are countless molds. What this means, in turn, is that there are also a million different ways to be flawed. You can be a slap-hitter. You can be a hacker. You can be a butcher in the field. We’re talking about literally infinite combinations. If you have a hundred players with value X, they could take a hundred different paths to get there.

By value, he means a player’s contribution to runs and, as a byproduct, wins. That’s all that matters, right? Who cares if it happens in an ugly fashion? As long as a player makes contribution to his team scoring runs and winning ballgames, we shouldn’t care how he accomplishes it. Yet many fans do. We can sometimes let a player’s flaws distort our evaluations of his contributions. Jeff continues in the next paragraph:

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.

There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but for now let’s just take a quick look at how each Yankee position player contributed to the 2009 team.

Power, contact, discipline, and defense: Mark Teixeira

Power, contact, and discipline: Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui

Contact, discipline, and defense: Derek Jeter

Power, discipline, and defense: Nick Swisher

Power and contact: Robinson Cano

Contact and defense: Melky Cabrera

Discipline and speed: Brett Gardner

(You could argue that Cano adds defense, even though UZR doesn’t agree, and you can argue that Swisher doesn’t add defense based on a few blunders earlier in the year. I don’t buy them, but feel free to make the case.)

Despite these players’ flaws, both real and perceived, each brings at least two skills to the table out of five: power, contact, discipline, defense, and speed.2 Say what you will about each player’s flaws — and we will certainly follow-up on this — but it’s hard to argue with the ways in which these players can succeed. With one four-skill player, seven three-skill players, and three two-skill players, it’s no wonder the Yankees were so successful in 2009.

1Lookout Landing is one blog I’d recommend to any fan of the game, regardless of team allegiance. Jeff leads thought provoking discussions that reach beyond the Mariners, and the other authors contribute as well. Plus, the M’s are a pretty interesting team. (Up)
2Yes, the traditional five tools include throwing arm and do not include discipline, but I think the latter is much more important in terms of value than the former. (Up)

Yankees sign Reid Gorecki

Via Baseball America, the Yankees have signed righty hitting outfielder Reid Gorecki to a minor league deal, presumably with an invite to Spring Training. The 29-year-old from Queens is a career .268-.342-.428 hitter in the minors (.273-.342-.432 in Triple-A), and TotalZone says he’s been superb defensively in right and center over the last three years. He got his first taste of the big leagues with the Braves last season, hitting .200-.222-.200 in an irrelevant 27 plate appearance cameo.

I could have sworn Gorecki got Rule 5’d a few years ago, but I confused him with Ryan Goleski. Silly me. Once upon a time BA ranked him as the 11th best prospect in St. Louis’ system, confirming the TotalZone data by saying he was legit big league CF with speed, good instincts and a strong arm. Much like the Jon Weber signing, this is just a depth move. He’s actually got a slight reverse split for his career, so there’s really no point in even entertaining the idea of platooning him with Brett Gardner in left.

A few more minor league signings will trickle out over the next few weeks; probably a few arms, maybe another outfielder, another infielder, the usual.

Derek maybe not getting married

When we yesterday highlighted a New York Post story claiming that Derek Jeter is getting married in November, we may have jumped the gun a bit. Although the story featured a denial by those in charge of the venue in Huntington, Long Island, the Post seemed pretty convinced of its veracity. Today, though, Craig Calcaterra’s sources tell him that Derek’s sister Sharlee is the one getting married. I just don’t know who or what to believe anymore, but hey, at least my sister still has her chance.

Open Thread: Nobody Don’t Like Yogi

Search the Internet enough, and you’ll find things you never even imagined. Many RAB posts, in fact, originate from odd items I find in various searches. This open thread is one of them.

Apparently, someone wrote a play about Yogi Berra. That’s appropriate enough. Yogi is a remarkable enough figure to warrant a stage play, I suppose. The title, Nobody Don’t Like Yogi, is entirely fitting. According to this review, it sounds like a decent way to spend a couple of hours. Yet I find something incredibly odd about this play.

If you clicked on the review, you’ll see that it comes from Ohio.com. The play was written years ago, in 2004, and probably played around this area. I just find it a bit odd that a theater in Cleveland would pick up something about the Yankees. If you’re in the area, it runs through January 24th at Actors’ Summit in Hudson (Ohio, of course).

If you, like me, hadn’t previously heard of this play, you can check it out on Google Books. It won’t have the whole thing, but it contains a lot of the one-man act.

And with that, your open thread for the evening.

Dog bites man

In news that will come as a surprise to approximately no one, Mark McGwire today admitted to a career of steroid use. McGwire, the only Hall-of-Fame eligible member of the 500-home run not enshrined in Cooperstown, is making his return to the field this year as the Cardinals’ bench coach and decided today that honesty was the best policy.

McGwire’s own words tell the story:

“I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come. It’s time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the nineties, including during the 1998 season.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

“During the mid-90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a rib cage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries too.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.”

From around baseball, the reactions from those in charge and those close to the former slugger are as expected. Tony LaRussa, as he has done since day one, defended his man, and Bud Selig just sounded awkward about it. “I am pleased that Mark McGwire has confronted his use of performance-enhancing substances as a player. Being truthful is always the correct course of action, which is why I had commissioned Senator George Mitchell to conduct his investigation,” the Commissioner said. “This statement of contrition, I believe, will make Mark’s reentry into the game much smoother and easier.”

In the end, the same reporters who urged McGwire to come forward with his admissions, as Joel Sherman did in October, are already critiizing him for doing just that, as Joel Sherman did an hour ago. The moral outrage is bound to grow until it becomes insufferably loud.

For his part, though, McGwire did what he had to do even if it is of no great shock to the rest of us. He’ll talk about tonight at 7 p.m. on the MLB Network with Bob Costas.

Looking at defensive stats

The past two years have shown us that the latest market inefficiency in baseball is clearly defense. Actually, that’s incorrect. The last market inefficiency was defense, because now everyone is on to it and soon enough something else will be undervalued. Jack Zduriencik’s Seattle Mariners are the poster child for improving defense (even though Billy Beane beat him to it), as we watched his team improve by 24 wins in 2009 despite scoring 31 fewer runs than 2008. They went from a team that allowed 5.01 runs per game in 2008 to a team that allowed 4.27 runs per game in 2009, improving their run differential by a net of 88 runs.

Evaluating defense has come a long way from the days of fielding percentage and errors, as more advanced statistics can more precisely measure the difficulty of a play based on where and how hard the ball was hit. In a piece for MLB.com, Doug Miller chronicles all of the newfangled defensive stats being used today, speaking to both the developers of various defensive statistics as well as team officials. Allow me to excerpt at length:

One of the pioneers of these stats, “The Fielding Bible” author John Dewan, says it all seems complex, but it isn’t. Dewan’s main stats, the DRS metric and Plus/Minus, are the result of logical data culled from comprehensive, painstaking attention to detail throughout a Major League season.

Simply put, Dewan’s company, Baseball Info Solutions, has upwards of 2,000 “scouts” who pore over video of every game played in the course of a 162-game MLB season and track each batted ball, analyzing how hard the balls are hit, how close or far they are from each fielder deemed to be responsible for making the play, and the result of what said defender does.

Many factors go into the point totals, including adjustments for things like stadium dimensions, wall height and even the occasional bonus points for home-run-saving catches.

Successful plays are awarded with a positive point total, points are subtracted for perceived failures, and the scores are added up and equated to “runs saved” throughout a year. Dewan and most other defensive-stat purveyors tend to agree that 10 runs saved equals one win over the course of a season.

“For Boston last year at third base, for example, Mike Lowell, who was unable to move well because of injury, cost them 20 runs, and now they have Adrian Beltre, and he added about 20 runs,” Dewan explains. “Right there, the Red Sox have added four wins. Plus they’ve added three wins at short with Marco Scutaro and a couple more in the outfield with Mike Cameron. It’s a huge improvement.”

UZR, developed by Mitchel Lichtman, is similar to DRS in its variables such as park adjustment, and to Dewan’s Plus/Minus in the sense that its scores are based on how often each defensive player is better than average on balls hit into their specific “zones” on the field.

Gutierrez, for example, led baseball with a UZR score of 29.1, while Aaron Rowand of the San Francisco Giants was one of the lowest-ranked center fielders in the game with a UZR of 1.3.

“Gutierrez had as much to do with our success as anybody last year,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. “He made our outfield better, he made our pitching staff better, he made our whole club better.”

For Dewan, Lichtman and David Pinto, who came up with the similar PMR metric, watching the Mariners improve by 24 games gave strong evidence that these stats are legit and the old methods of ranking defense, fielding percentage and range factor, are becoming antiquated.

Of course, defensive stats are far from perfect, just like offensive and pitching stats aren’t perfect either. Moshe Mandel at TYU pointed out the uncertainty of UZR given the naturally small sample sizes of defensive chances (think about how many balls a given fielder actually makes a play on in a game), and suggests a weighted system based on about three years of data. Jeff Zimmerman at Beyond The Box Score used a similar system and four years data to create UZR projections for 2010, which project the Yanks’ to be a below average defensive team next year (disclaimer: this was long before any major moves were made this offseason).

The more information used to make an evaluation, the better. By no means should statistics replace scouts, because there’s far too much information stats can’t measure. A spreadsheet won’t tell you if a hitter is losing bat speed (though they could suggest it), nor will they tell you that the guy throwing 97 is at risk for injury because his mechanics are deeply flawed. However, at the same time a scout’s eye won’t tell you that Nick Swisher‘s down year in 2008 was a function of bad luck more so than declining skills.

The statistics born out of the game of baseball, just like the game itself, continue to evolve. What we have in UZR, +/-, RZR, PMR and the like are the most advanced defensive metrics ever available. They’re not perfect and they suffer from the same sample size issues as do the more traditional stats, but we’d be foolish to ignore them just because the don’t agree with what our eyes tell us. Like the dude from Memento said, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Statistics are facts.

Frankly, we’ve only seen the tip of the defensive metric iceberg, just wait until HitFX and this monster get fully implemented.

Photo Credit: David J. Phillip, AP

For 2010, what role Aceves?

It’s sometimes hard to believe that Alfredo Aceves, the forgotten man out of Spring Training who didn’t arrive in the Bronx until May last year, finished with the fourth most wins on the Yankees. He always seemed to enter the game at exactly the right time, and he ended up with 10 wins and just one loss.

In many respects, Alfredo Aceves’ 2009 campaign helps highlight a lot of statistical platitudes about pitching. Relief wins are rather meaningless when some of them come in extra innings and others are brought about by virtue of long relief, multiple-inning appearances. He did, as Steve Lombardi wrote at Was Watching over the weekend, vulture his wins.

As a Posnanskian aside, Aceves’ 2009 splits also show how pitchers’ numbers respond to luck. In the first half, he threw 43.1 innings, allowed 34 hits, walked nine and struck out 7.5 per 9 IP. His ERA was 2.49. In the second half, he threw 40.2 innings, allowed 35 hits, walked eight and struck out 7.3 per 9 IP. Despite allowing fewer home runs and sporting a WHIP just 0.065 higher in the second half, his ERA over those 40.2 innings sat at 4.65. Luck changed, and his ERA settled in at a respectable 3.54 for the season.

Basically, Aceves was an above-average reliever, Lombardi says, who won more games than he probably should have. As Steve rightly points out, the odds of Aceves doing that again are slim, and he says, “Let’s hope the Yankees aren’t banking a repeat of this from Aceves this season.”

Now, I don’t wish to denigrate Alfredo Aceves. He turned in a very respectable season for the Yanks after spending a month at AAA. He had a WXRL of 2.522 and an ARP of 12.9. By many respects, he was the Yanks’ third most valuable reliever in 2009 due to his high innings total and relatively high-leverage usage. He can get a ground ball; he can get a K; he can throw short stints or make long appearances. All in all, he’s a very good guy to have.

But the Yankees know Aceves’ limitations as well. His shoulder started barking in late July, and he seemed to hit a mid-summer wall. He was not very consistent in limited October use and, as any pitcher, fares better against less patient hitters. How will the Yanks use him in 2010?

Well, from the start, Aceves will see his spot on the depth charts bumped down a bit. The Yankees will, in all likelihood, head into 2010 with Mariano Rivera as the closer, either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain as the primary setup man, David Robertson as the go-to strike out guy, Damaso Marte as the lefty specialist and Chad Gaudin as the primary long reliever. Aceves stands to be the sixth guy out of the pen and the Yanks’ seventh or eighth starter.

In the end, the Mexican Gangster adds some depth the Yankees’ bullpen. He does a good job of keeping hitters off base and generally keeps the ball in the park. He’s versatile and adopted well to different roles. With Javier Vazquez around, the improvement to Yanks’ pitching staff trickles down the bullpen, and the team should, if all goes according to plan, not need Aceves to swoop in and nab those vulture wins this year.

Above: Al Aceves pitches against the Orioles in July. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)