Nine Innings with yours truly

Jesse Spector, the scribe behind the Daily News’ Touching Bases blog, has been interviewing writers from around the Internet as part of his Nine Innings series. The format is simple: Jesse asks nine questions, and those of us who volunteer to answer do so. This week, Spector and I exchanged e-mails, and you can check out my answers to his nine questions right here. We talk about the Hot Stove League, the YES Network and the most over- and under-rated Yankees. Check it out.

Can Derek Jeter aim his hits?

If ballplayers could aim their hits with any consistency, perhaps we’d have seen a few more .400 hitters in baseball history. But, as we’ve learned through years of studying the game, it’s not that easy. Hitters have little reaction time between when the pitcher releases the ball and when the ball crosses the plate. During that time a batter must decide where the ball will cross the plate, the velocity of the pitch, the break of the pitch, and then finally of whether he will swing. And then it’s a matter of hitting a sphere with a cylinder. But you know all this, and you know it makes it difficult for a batter to aim his hit to a particular portion of the field.

A hitter can help his case, of course, by generally going with the pitch. Some hitters seem to do this better than others, and over the past 14 years we’ve had the pleasure of watching Derek Jeter slap outside pitches to right field. When pitchers try to work Jeter inside, he can turn around and pull a ball down the left field line, just to keep them honest. In fact, before 2009 he hit more ground balls and line drives down the left field line than the right.

Today at FanGraphs, Dave Allen examines Jeter’s hit tendencies, specifically ground balls and line drives — the batted ball types that generate the most hits. He uses the following field slices to describe where Jeter hits his ground balls and line drives. The number represents the percentage of all GB and LD hit to that field slice, and the shading represents slugging percentage on those hits, the lighter the lower.

Allen makes a few notations about the difference in 2009:

The worst places to hit a grounder are straight at the second basemen or shortstop, those are the grayest slices and in 2009 Jeter cut down the the percentage of his hits to those two slices by 4% (2B) and 2% (SS). He had more hits right up the middle (25% versus 21%), which are singles and doubles more often than outs.

Again, the improvement comes in Jeter’s bread and butter areas, up the middle and to right field. While Allen noted his up the middle increase, Jeter also increased the percentage of GB and LD he hit between the first and second baseman. This probably played a large part in Jeter’s high BABIP, .369.

Allen follows the above block quote with the following: “I don’t think this is a shift in true talent: I don’t think Jeter is any better at ‘aiming’ his grounders.” I’m not as sure. There isn’t a real way to prove this, so for now all we can do is guess. Jeter did, however, display a more discerning eye in 2009 than he had in the two previous years, increasing his pitches seen per plate appearance. Does a keen batting eye allow a player to better aim his hits?

To the average Yankees fan, with the heavy bias that comes with watching a single team so frequently, Jeter does seem better at aiming his hits than other hitters. In 2009 he seemed exceptional, often jumping on the first pitch of the game and depositing it in the shallow outfield. No, he can’t hit a baseball anywhere at will. But it does appear he embodies the Wee Willie Keeler mantra of “hit it where they ain’t.”

Prospect Profile: Graham Stoneburner

Graham Stoneburner | RHP

Stoneburner grew up in Richmond, Virginia, not far from the talent hotbed that produced players like Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Justin Verlander, and The Uptons in recent years. He lettered in baseball all four years at Mills E. Godwin High School, though he didn’t explode onto the prospect scene until his junior year, when he posted a 0.21 ERA with 74 strikeouts in just 43 innings, not to mention three homers and a .313 batting average. Stoneburner was named First Team All-Metro and Second Team All-District as a junior, and was expected to garner consideration for the top two rounds of the 2006 draft with a strong senior season.

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The 10 biggest hits of the 2009 regular season

Not all hits are created equal. While a double is a double is a double in the boxscore, a double with men on first and third with two outs when you’re down by two has the appearance of being a bigger hit. Maybe a double, or even a single, earlier in the game could have rendered the above situation moot, but most of the time we’re not thinking of baseball in terms of all possible outcomes. We’re thinking of the specific game situation and what happened.

Big hits can lead to big things. They can rally a team from behind, they can move a team towards symbolic victory. The top teams in the league are bound to have a lot of big hits during the season. We put the value of these hits in better perspective in hindsight, since we can take a long view of the season and determine the ups, the downs, and the turning points.

These are my 10 biggest hits of the 2009 season. Clearly there’s a high level of subjectivity here. I encourage everyone to add in what they feel are the biggest hits. Surely I missed a few that you thought were bigger.

10. A-Rod‘s ninth-inning sac fly in Anaheim (video)

With their magic number falling and their win total approaching 100, the Yankees went to Anaheim in late September for the second time in 2009. Billed a playoff preview, pundits and fans placed much weight on the series. The Yankees had lost the first three games in Anaheim, a July sweep, and had a history of poor performance at Angels Stadium. A loss in the series opener didn’t help matters.

The second game went a bit better. Heading into the bottom of the eighth the Yankees led 5-4, with Hughes and Rivera poised to close out the victory. But a Robinson Cano error opened up an opportunity for the Angels. They tied the game in the eighth, leaving us deflated heading into the ninth. The Yanks didn’t let it get them down, though, and they opened the ninth with a bang, a Brett Gardner single and stolen base.

Darren Oliver came in with runners on first and second with none out, and two batters later it was second and third with one out with Alex Rodriguez at the plate. He didn’t do too much, just hit a line drive to left center, scoring Gardner from third to give the Yanks the lead for good. It might seem like a small matter, a sac fly to break a tie, but for the Yanks and their fans it was big. They won in Anaheim, and A-Rod did one of the small things that wins teams ballgames. The Yanks continued on to win another close one the next day, giving everyone more confidence they could beat Anaheim in the playoffs.

Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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Almost a Yankee, almost a Yankee fan

These days, Curt Schilling is not quiet about his baseball fandom. Shunning Mystique and Aura, he spits in the faces of the Yankees — and most notably Alex Rodriguez — whenever he can, and he worships the insufferable altar of Theo Epstein. Don’t make the mistake of today confusing him for a Yankee fan or else the public reaction will be swift and merciless. Just ask Martha Coakley.

But Schilling, many in Massachusetts seem to forget, wasn’t always a Boston supporter. A product of Anchorage, Alaska, Schilling was drafted by the Red Sox and traded to Baltimore before making his Major League debut. Along the way, he picked up an appreciation for baseball history and grew to idolize Lou Gehrig so much that he named his son Gehrig. Love the history, hate the team? I don’t know about that.

These days, of course, Curt Schilling hates the Yankees. At his introductory press conference in 2003, he set the stage by proclaiming to a room full of Red Sox reporters, “I guess I hate the Yankees now.” I’ve heard of bandwagon fans, but Schilling must be one of the most prominent bandwagons haters. I guess.

For some illuminating material, let’s revisit the Schilling trade to the Red Sox. He was, after all, nearly a Yankee. I covered the tortured history of the Schilling deal last March when Curt announced his retirement from baseball. At the time, I wrote:

[In mid-November, Jack] Curry uncovers an early price tag: The Diamondbacks would swap Schilling and Junior Spivey for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson. Today, that doesn’t seem like quite a high price, but five and a half years ago, it did to the Yankees. (Of note: Curry also reports for the first time that the Rangers would be open to trading Alex Rodriguez. It’s an early sign of things to come.)

By Friday, the Yankees had moved on to Javier Vazquez. The Yankees would not, according to Curry, “trade their two best young players for Schilling because they feel the monetary relief they would be giving Arizona eliminates the need for them to trade equal talent.” At that point, Schilling also expressed his desire to go to only the Yankees or the Phillies. Brian Cashman left the GM meetings with the team feeling insulted by the Diamondbacks’ offers.

That would, of course, be the end of it. The Yanks refused to budget; the Diamondbacks refused to budge. Despite Schilling’s public desire to play in New York, the two sides could not work out a deal, and when Theo Epstein turned on the Thanksgiving charm, the Boston/New York rivalry would never be the same.

There’s more to it than that. Jayson Stark spoke with Schilling about the trade rumors as they swirled, and Curt pushed for an East Coast return. “I can stay here and pitch the last year of my contract in Arizona, and then walk. Or I can talk about possibly getting a three-year extension to go to New York and have a chance to win a world championship. If those are my choices, why wouldn’t I at least agree to listen?” Schilling said.

Schilling added, “There are two teams the Diamondbacks know I’ll talk with if they try to make a trade with them. That’s the Yankees and Phillies. Other than that, there are no hidden factors, no hidden agendas.”

For two weeks, until Theo Epstein landed in Arizona for a Thanksgiving dinner, Curt Schilling lobbied hard to join the Yanks. As Stark wrote, Curt wanted to be Roger Clemens, and landing in the Bronx to replace the then-retired Rocket would have been his dream.

Up in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley lost an election a few days after calling Curt Schilling a Yankee fan. In 2010, we know she’s as wrong as wrong could be. Curt’s socks are a deep, dark shade of red. But she indirectly reminded us — Yankee fans and Red Sox fans both who are in denial over Curt’s backstory — that Schilling wasn’t always a Boston Booster. For three weeks in November and for years before that, he admired the Yankees and their storied history. Had he landed in the Bronx, he would have been as big a Yankee fan as anyone reading RAB today.

Just a friendly reminder: Please do your best to leave the political discussion, debate and flame wars to other sites. While Martha Coakley gets a mention here, it is in the context of baseball history. We’re not endorsing an outcome or a candidate in the now-completed Massachusetts Senate race. We’re just highlighting Curt Schilling’s tortured legacy of hoping on the right bandwagon at what, for him, was the right time.

Yanks bench not a worry heading into 2010

As the off-season winds down and we eagerly approach the first glimpses of Spring Training, we have little left to discuss in terms of the Yankees’ roster. The primary players are already in place. Eight for-sure position players, four for-sure pitchers plus two youngsters for the final rotation spot, and a solid core of relievers. With Brett Gardner currently slated to start the season in left and Francisco Cervelli tapped as the backup catcher, the Yanks have just three spots to play with.

As we’ve learned over the past few years, and especially last year, the bench means very little to start the season. Last season the Yankees opened with a bench of Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, Ramiro Pena, and Jose Molina. While that would have sufficed all season, even with the Melky-Gardner swap, things quickly changed. The Yankees will not possess this kind of depth in 2010, but 2009 was an aberration in that regard. Few teams, if any, have a player like Nick Swisher on the bench.

With Jerry Hairston in San Diego playing alongside his brother and with Eric Hinske gunning for playing time in Atlanta, the bench will not resemble the one that closed the 2009 season. Which is fine, because the bench that closed the season — Hairston, Gardner, Hinske, and Molina — shared only one common player with the Opening Day bench. Like Molina last year, Cervelli could go wire to wire on the bench. Considering the options the Yankees have right now, that might not be true of any other player.

How will the Yankees construct their bench to start the season? To answer we must first see how the left field situation plays out. The team says they’re eyeing a right-handed outfielder to caddy for Brett Gardner, and we’ve spent plenty of time analyzing those options. They could still add Johnny Damon, which would move Gardner to fourth outfielder, but adding one of the many right-handed outfielders would produce the same effect. Whether Damon or otherwise, that’s one of three bench spots.

The infield won’t be such a big concern. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano don’t take many days off. Last season Cano missed just one game and Jeter missed nine. A-Rod‘s preseason injury limited him to 124 games, but when healthy he’s in there nearly every day. Since the utility infielder will play a game a week or less, the position isn’t that important, and is probably the reason the Yankees did not even attempt to retain Jerry Hairston. Ramiro Pena appears the favorite, but Kevin Russo could get a shot — though his lack of experience at shortstop might hurt his case.

The final bench spot could go one of two ways. The most likely is Rule 5 selection Jamie Hoffman getting a shot. Since they can easily return him to Los Angeles if he doesn’t work out, the Yanks will likely give him a shot unless someone else makes an overly compelling case during the spring. The alternative is Juan Miranda for some lefty power off the bench, but since he has an option the Yankees can afford to try out Hoffman. They can always bring up Miranda later.

Unlike the 2009 version, the 2010 bench will not feature any players who can adequately substitute in case of injury. When Nady went down last year they had Swisher to step in, but that is not the case this season. That’s fine, though. Any team that has a starter-quality player sitting on the bench is lucky and then some. Hell, there are teams that can’t even field nine adequate starters, nevermind hiding someone on the bench. The 2009 Opening Day bench was a luxury that we should not get used to.

Still, we know the Yankees have the tools to reconfigure the bench on the fly. Their bevy of mid-level prospect can help them obtain the right players from teams no longer in the hunt. It’s exactly how they acquired Hairston and Hinske last year. But, before they go do that, they can afford to see how the in-house options work. Who knows, maybe they won’t even need to swing a trade this year. If they do, they’ll certainly have options come mid-season.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Open Thread: Distantly Yankees-related stuff

Lots went down in baseball today, with teams working out deals with arbitration-eligible players or otherwise exchanging figures. Mike rocked it at MLBTR today, so head over there and catch up on anything you’ve missed. For now, here are a few not-so-huge kinda, sorta Yankees related items from the day.

And with that, the open thread for the evening.