Listen to me make a fool of myself on the radio

Just a heads up … I’m going to be on The Sports Show Live at 8:40 ET tonight to talk about the Yanks and the upcoming season and all that. Listen here.

Open Thread: BP Q&A at the Yogi Berra Museum

Just passing this along…

Steve Goldman and several others from Baseball Prospectus’ team of nerds analysts are holding a roundtable discussion about the upcoming 2010 season this Sunday at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University. Tickets are the regular price of admission ($6) or free if you buy a book. The talk will be held from 3-5pm, so if you’re in the area and want to hear some really smart people talk about baseball, make sure you check it out.

Here’s a little more from the museum’s site.

Now that that’s taken care of, here’s your open thread for the night. The Olympics are the only sports action on the tube, though the Canada-Russia hockey matchup should be a doozy. Loser goes home without a medal, which is kind of the big deal in those countries. Enjoy the thread.

Minor leaguers to be tested for HGH

Via The NY Times, Major League Baseball plans to start testing minor league players for human growth hormone later this year, which is the first step towards testing for HGH in the big leagues. Because most minor leaguers are not members of the MLBPA, the league is able to institute the blood testing without having to collectively bargain. It’s only a matter of time before they start invading privacy and poking guys in the show with needles.

Frankly, I have no interest in the whole steroid thing, and for what it’s worth, Will Carroll, in an interview with Maury Brown, doesn’t see much HGH use in baseball players. I just don’t care anymore. And besides, I liked it better when players did things like this.

Concerns with Yanks run up the middle

One reason I love the Curtis Granderson acquisition is the offense he provides at a premium position. As they currently stand, the Yankees have above average hitters at all four up the middle positions. It means they can afford to have average players at other positions. The Yankees have done this in the past, with tremendous results. Many of their championship teams and dynasties have been built around premium up the middle players. As Jay says:

Historically, the two most decorated positions on the Yankees are center field and catcher. With the exception of the 1920’s dynasty when they had both Ruth and Gehrig, when they were at their best, the Yankees have featured great players in both positions. Dickey and DiMaggio; Berra/Howard and Mantle; Munson and Murcer; Posada and Bernie. Add to that Rizzuto and Jeter at shortstop and the Yanks have a storied history of finding excellent talent at premium defensive positions.

He’s responding to an article wherein Rob Neyer claims that the Yankees might have a weakness growing forward. That weakness, strangely, is that Mark Teixeira might be their best player. He doesn’t play a premium position, so Neyer’s reasoning goes that the Yankees could be weaker because of it. I agree with Jay that I understand the point Neyer’s trying to make. I just don’t buy it.

The Yankees have put an emphasis on catcher recently, drafting and signing many young players in hopes that one or two pans out. They also have relatively young players at second base and center field. Neyer bases his case on 2011, when both Granderson and Robinson Cano will still be young and should still outproduce most of their peers. By that time we might see the first of Jesus Montero and perhaps Austin Romine. It appears shortstop is the only weakness in this equation, though it appears the Yankees are in no hurry to replace Derek Jeter.

Could the Yankees face issues in the future with up the middle talent? Sure. Any team can. But I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness that Teixeira might be their best player for the next few years. The talent is there, and as we’ve seen the team will do what it takes to reload.

In closing, I’d like to address one self-answered question in Neyer’s post:

Is there anyone now on the Yankees’ roster with a decent shot at being the best player in the American League in 2011? One of the five best players in the league? I don’t think so.

So Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira don’t have a decent shot at being a top five player in the AL in 2011? No, I think they very much could rank among the best five AL players next season, and I don’t see any reason right now to think why they wouldn’t.

The joy of a controversy free Spring Training

The 2010 New York Yankees held their first official full workout of the season today, and already it’s easy to notice a big difference between this year and years passed: It’s quiet.

Fresh off their 27th World Championship, there’s no early season controversy surrounding the Yankees in 2010. Last year we had Alex Rodriguez‘s steroid revelations, and before that there was the PED clouds of Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi. In between we were forced to deal with everything from rotation questions to bullpen questions to questions about Bernie Williams‘ role to questions about the almighty Joba Rules. It seemed that anything and everything was fair game, and often it was.

Things are much different this year though, mostly because the team doesn’t have to answer questions about playoff failures or a mega free agent signing. Everyone seems to understand that Johnny Damon and Scott Boras overplayed their hand, and that they need not look beyond a mirror to find someone to blame for his being in Detroit. GM Brian Cashman replaced Damon and Hideki Matsui, productive yet aging players, with equally productive players in the prime of their careers and on affordable contracts. Nostalgia clearly has taken a step back in the Bronx.

Right now, the biggest issues facing the Yankees are the expiring contracts of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, the two longest tenured players on the team. Jeter addressed just that this morning, saying “I’ve never gone into a season focused on the next season … This is the only organization I want to play for. I don’t think I can say it enough times. I’m not worried about what my legacy is at this point.” The Captain then said he won’t be discussing his contract situation after today, and he’s never given us a reason to doubt him. Rivera – and also manager Joe Girardi – dealt with his contract situation the same way. The controversies were snuffed out before they even had a chance to begin.

We’ve already dealt with the MSM manufactured storyline of complacency, though there are sure to be attempts to drum up something else to fill the column inches. The Phil HughesJoba Chamberlain fifth starter battle is nothing more than a Spring Training position battle, something that’s happening in 29 other camps in Florida and Arizona. Ditto the Curtis GrandersonBrett Gardner leftfield-centerfield situation. But those dull topics have already been discussed ad nauseum this offseason. There’s nothing more left to talk about, all we have to do is sit back and watch. Like it’s supposed to be.

For the first time in a long time, it’s just baseball around Yankees’ camp. And I absolutely love it.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

The benefits of a better backup catcher

While some Spring Training battles involve a starting position, most center on the final few roster spots. The Yankees have a few such situations this year, including righty off the bench (Thames or Hoffmann) and utility infielder (Pena or Nunez). One spot not in dispute is backup catcher. Throughout the winter we have assumed that Francisco Cervelli will assume the role Jose Molina filled for the past two and a half years. The Yankees have made no moves to indicate otherwise, signing only Mike Rivera to fill the Chad Moeller/Chris Stewart/Kevin Cash emergency spot. The position belongs to Cervelli, uncontested.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

With Jorge Posada, one of the league’s best offensive catchers, getting the majority of the playing time this might seem like a small issue. Yet it’s exactly because of Posada that the backup catcher could play a large role on the 2010 Yankees. Jorge turned 38 at the end of last season, an age when many catchers have already called it a career. That’s not to say that his production will fall off a cliff in 2010, but we also probably shouldn’t expect his 2009 production. He had a stellar year, posting his second highest OPS since 2003 and his best ISO since 2000. Even if he hits at, say, 80 percent of that, he’ll still be well above average for a catcher.

With Posada’s age and recent injury history, however, it’s tough to ignore the possibility that he either misses significant time, or does see a stark decline in production. Again, that’s not to say that he will, but rather that I think the chances of his decline are great than they are for, say, Derek Jeter, the second oldest Yankees position player. Posada has spent 134 days on the disabled list over the past two years with injuries to his shoulder and hamstring. He also experienced a number of maladies later in the year, including a finger injury that he said bothered him in the last month and a half. His health is far from a guarantee, and if something does happen to him it means more Francisco Cervelli. While that helps on defense, it will certainly hurt the offense.

The potential doom scenario has made me wonder how much the Yankees would have benefitted from adding a more solid backup catcher this off-season. As it stands, if Posada gets hurt the Yankees will have Francisco Cervelli and his 106 career plate appearances playing every day, with journeyman Mike Rivera backing him up. That means the Yankees would go from having catchers well above replacement level, perhaps five or six wins combined, to catchers much closer to replacement. A Cervelli/Rivera combination might produce 2 WAR, a steep drop-off from Posada/Cervelli.

Unfortunately, acquiring a competent backup isn’t as easy as it might sound. If a catcher can hit, chances are he’ll find a starting gig somewhere, or else find a team with a weak incumbent he can supplant with a quality performance. The only way, then, for a team with a starter like Posada to acquire a viable backup is via trade. We did see one such trade this off-season, when the Indians traded Kelly Shoppach to the Rays after he realized a drop-off from his 2008 numbers. So why didn’t the Yankees make a more aggressive play for Shoppach, knowing that he could probably fill the starting role more capably than Cervelli?

Catchers like Shoppach, even after a down year, don’t come cheap. If the Yankees wanted to acquire him, and assume the risk that he won’t recover to his 2008 form, they’d have to sacrifice a player or players on the farm. While teams can benefit from trading prospects for veterans, such deals have to come in the right situation. The Yankees only have so many farmhands they can trade to fill holes on the major league roster, and acquiring a backup catcher just isn’t that high on the priority list. Perhaps it moved a bit higher this year because of the risks Posada poses, but not high enough to sacrifice someone like, say Zach McAllister or Ivan Nova.

While having a more reliable backup catcher would have been nice, the upgrade wasn’t worth the acquisition cost. If Posada’s performance declines or he gets hurt the Yankees will suffer a bit with Cervelli behind the plate, but it’s not a total loss. While he’ll never be Posada with the bat, Cervelli looks like a very good defensive catcher. That will close the performance gap between the two. For now, the Yankees will have to rely on Posada to catch another 100, 110 games. With their minor league catchers moving up the ranks, it might be the last year they need him to take on that workload.

Walks a concern for Burnett, but so are ground balls

While A.J. Burnett‘s first season in pinstripes was in many ways a success, he left some room for improvement. He knows it, too. As he said the other day, he needs to, “Not walk as many people and go deeper into games.” In 2009 Burnett posted his highest walk rate since 2000 and the lowest innings per start of his career (both discounting his injury shortened 2003). He would clearly benefit from improvements in both, though I do think that he left out one important aspect: his ground ball rate.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Burnett has never been known as a control pitcher. In some years, such as 2006 and 2004, he’s posted BB/9 rates below 3.00, which is a good mark for a starter. Yet his career rate is 3.78, meaning he’s had many years above that mark. He also sat below the mark in years where he failed to reach 140 IP. Chances are, Burnett won’t miraculously stop issuing free passes in 2010. Instead, I imagine he’ll fall back somewhere in the range of his last five years, which is 3.52 walks per nine.

What Burnett could do to help his case is to start inducing more ground balls. Or, rather, to induce ground balls like he did before 2009. Last season he posted the lowest ground ball rate of his career, 42.8 percent. Over his career he’s kept nearly 50 percent of balls in play on the ground, which helps a pitcher who hands out free passes. Unsurprisingly, Burnett induced more double plays in 2005, when his ground ball rate was 58.4 percent, than at any other point in his career. In 2009 he induced one double play for, roughly, every 60 batters faced. Prior to 2008, when he saw his ground ball rate drop below 50 percent for the first time his career, he was around one every 38 batters. In 2008 he was at one in every 50 batters.

Keeping the ball on the ground can also help Burnett reach his second stated goal, to go deeper into ballgames. While walking fewer hitters will undoubtedly help, so will inducing ground balls. In his best ground ball years, Burnett kept his hits per nine rate below 8.0. With a decent infield behind him, Burnett shouldn’t have problems with too many ground balls finding holes. Perhaps if this was the 2005 Yankees defense it would be an issue, but it’s not as much in 2010.

At FanGraphs, Matthew Carruth examines ground ball rates and what they mean for pitchers. In terms of the big picture, pitchers with higher ground ball rates saw lower FIP and runs allowed rates. That’s not to say that every pitcher follows this guideline, but Burnett seems to. In the last five years his highest ground ball rates have come in 2005 and 2007, which also happen to be the years he’s posted his lowest ERAs.

We’d all like Burnett to cut down on his walks and pitch deeper into games. The first, in fact, begets the second. Part of the problem with walks, however, is that Burnett has never been a low walks guy. But he has been a ground ball guy. If he can get back to that, and bring his walk rate back to career norms, he should not only pitch deeper into ballgames, but also pitch more effectively overall.