ALCS Preview: The Infields

With plenty of time between the end of play Sunday and the start of the ALCS on Friday evening, we’ll take our time previewing the series. We’ve already done the managers and the starters. Now to the infielders.

Offensively, the Yankees have the best infield in baseball in 2009. Their weakest link, Robinson Cano, had a .370 wOBA and a 126 OPS+, absolutely insane numbers for the worst of a five-player group. The Angels also have a strong infield, made stronger by a second half Howie Kendrick surge. So let’s see how the two teams match up, head to head.

Catcher: Mike Napoli/Jeff Mathis vs. Jorge Posada/Jose Molina

PA BA OBP SLG wOBA SB CS% UZR
Mike Napoli 432 .272 .350 .492 .362 3 50 n/a
Jeff Mathis 272 .211 .288 .308 .267 2 60 n/a
Jorge Posada 438 .285 .363 .522 .378 1 0 n/a
Jose Molina 155 .217 .292 .268 .260 0 n/a n/a

Former catchers manage both teams, and both teams have chosen to use their backup catchers in the playoffs, an uncommon move. In both cases the backup is the superior defender, but they are also atrocious hitters. That’s to be expected of a backup catcher. At least in this series the disadvantage should even out — perhaps even favor the Yankees, because Scioscia tends to use Mathis more than Girardi uses Molina.

Both starters are below average defensively by anecdotal measures. A recent study in catcher defense, while imperfect, corroborates. It ranks Napoli dead last in the majors, of 114 qualified catchers, and ranks Jorge 109th. Jorge has a slightly better caught stealing percentage, 28 percent to 22, but that’s also an imperfect measure of throwing proficiency (i.e., it counts pickoffs).

Thankfully for their teams, they can both mash. Thankfully for the Yankees, Jorge mashes more. His .378 wOBA was second among catchers with at least 400 PA, to the mighty Joe Mauer. While Napoli and Jorge have comparable raw power — Jorge has a .237 Iso and Napoli is at .220 — Jorge gets on base at better clip and hits for a better average.

Edge: Yanks. The backups are about even, and Jorge edges out Napoli.

First base: Kendry Morales vs. Mark Teixeira

PA BA OBP SLG wOBA SB CS% UZR/150
Kendry Morales 622 .306 .355 .569 .382 3 70 4.4
Mark Teixeira 707 .292 .383 .565 .402 2 0 -2.4

Kendry Morales was always one of Anaheim’s most hyped prospects. They gave him a $3 million bonus as an amateur free agent in December 2004 after he defected from Cuba in June. Per Kevin Goldstein, he was “considered the best position player to ever defect from Cuba.” Morales mashed in the minors, putting up a slash line of .332/.373/.528 from 2005 through 2008. He got 407 major league plate appearances between 2006 and 08, but posted a pedestrian .249/.302/.408 line. As we know, he broke out in 2009.

The Angels were disappointed when they found out Teixeira was leaving, but Morales has done his part to replace the production from first base. It didn’t quite match Tex’s numbers, but it was close enough — and they have him signed cheaply enough — that the Angels have to be more than satisfied. That UZR says he plays good defense (and I haven’t heard any major knocks on his D) is an even bigger plus.

Teixeira had a slightly better year at the plate, and has the more favorable platoon splits. He had a .373 OBP and .576 SLG as a lefty vs. righties and a .400 OBP and .511 SLG as a righty against lefties. Morales has a much more pronounced split, a .366 OBP and .596 SLG as a lefty vs. righties and a .319 OBP and .481 SLG as a righty against lefties. If the series goes seven games the Angels will face a lefty five times, which does not bode well for Morales. It also might mean Damaso Marte stays in the bullpen.

Both players had better second halves than first, and both have pronounced home/road splits favoring the home end. Morales has a bigger difference, though, a 1.042 OPS at home vs. .814 on the road, while Teixeira has a 1.013 OPS at home vs. .882 on the road. Morales has the advantage in defense, but Tex still seems the better bet all around.

Edge: Yankees

Second base: Howie Kendrick vs. Robinson Cano

PA BA OBP SLG wOBA SB CS% UZR/150
Howie Kendrick 400 .291 .334 .444 .341 11 27 3.4
Robinson Cano 674 .320 .352 .520 .370 5 58 -4.9

Over the past few years, we’ve seen many comparisons of Cano and Kendrick. Both are young second basemen, and both are free swinging contact hitters. The comparisons seem to end there, though, as Kendrick falls short of Cano in power and durability.

Kendrick started off poorly in 2009, limited his playing time. Even though he spent plenty of time on the bench in the first half, he still set a personal best with 400 plate appearances. He also set a career high in walks…with 20. That’s one walk ever 20 plate appearances. That’s bad. Really bad, even. But then take a look at Cano, who walked 30 times in 674 plate appearances, or one every 22.5 plate appearances.

In terms of aggregate results, the two aren’t particularly close. Cano had better rate stats over about 60 percent more plate appearances. Our favorite counting stat, WAR (read about its awesomeness), has Cano destroying Kendrick, 4.3 to 2.1. Unfortunately, we’re not looking for season aggregates. We’re looking for who should play better in the ALCS.

Kendrick came on stronger in the second half, though he still didn’t play full time — or at least as full-time as Cano, who had 122 more plate appearances from the All-Star Break on. Kendrick edged out Cano in second half OPS, .948 to .922, but again, it was in far less playing time. It’s also a pretty small sample for Kendrick, who put up a .644 OPS in the first half over 226 PA.

Cano has an advantage in that he has no real platoon split. He gets on base a bit better against righties, but has better power against lefties, evening out his OPS. Kendrick gets on base about the same, but his power is greatly sapped against lefties, causing a nearly .090 discrepancy in OPS. Kendrick also features a .846 OPS at home vs. a .714 mark on the road, while Cano’s splits are just .912 at home vs. .832 on the road.

Edge: Yankees. Kendrick has come on strong, but Cano is still the better hitter, even though his defense measures a bit worse.

Third base: Chone Figgins vs. Alex Rodriguez

PA BA OBP SLG wOBA SB CS% UZR/150
Chone Figgins 729 .298 .395 .393 .358 42 29 11.8
Alex Rodriguez 535 .286 .402 .532 .405 14 12.5 -7.6

In terms of pure hitting, this isn’t even close. Then again, beyond Evan Longoria there aren’t many third basemen who can match rate and counting stats with A-Rod. Figgins might have an edge in batting average, but everything else is A-Rod. But, just for the fun of it, let’s take at the things that Figgins did really well and compare those to A-Rod.

Figgins had 729 plate appearances this season, 194 more than A-Rod, who missed the season’s first month and sat on the bench a bit more than he would normally. This helped give Figgins the edge in WAR, 5.9 to 4.6. Part of this has to do with Figgins’s 42 stolen bases(also defense), tied for third in the MLB. But on the flipside, he led the league in caught stealing with 17, leaving him with a 29 percent caught stealing rate. A-Rod stole only 14 bases this season but was caught just twice. So while Figgins swipes more bases, Alex is far more efficient in doing so.

Figgins also led the league in walks with 101, though Alex wasn’t far behind with 80. With Figgins’s 729 plate appearances, that means he walked once every 7.2 plate appearances. A-Rod walked once every 6.7 plate appearances. So in the two areas that Figgins excels, steals and walks, A-Rod is more efficient. Combine that with far superior power numbers and even Figgins’s defensive prowess can’t bridge the gap. And, as I’ve posited a number of times already, A-Rod’s defense has improved greatly from May and June, further closing the gap in that aspect.

Edge: Yankees

Shortstop: Erik Aybar vs. Derek Jeter

PA BA OBP SLG wOBA SB CS% UZR/150
Erik Aybar 556 .312 .353 .423 .339 14 33 6.3
Derek Jeter 716 .334 .405 .465 .390 30 14 5.3

Erik Aybar is a useful player. He had a good year at the plate this year and has a slick glove. If I were building a team, I wouldn’t mind having Aybar as my shortstop. But he doesn’t come close to Derek Jeter’s production. It’s not even worth diving further than the surface stats. Jeter has a better batting average, OBP, slugging, and wOBA. He stole more bases and was more successful in doing so. He also did it over 160 more plate appearances.

Aybar has a slight edge in defense, but it only goes a short way in bringing him close to Jeter. In some cases, like Teixeira vs. Morales, it’s worth going deep into the matter. Not in this. It’s Jeter in a landslide.

Edge: Yankees

Angels still have a defensive edge

While the Yankees have the superior offense across all the infield positions, the Angels edge them out in defense across the board. That ranges from small differences, like Aybar over Jeter, to huge gaps, like Figgins over A-Rod. While defense is important, I’m not sure that it compensates for the vast difference in offensive production from the infields.

The Angels infield defense is good, yes, but the Yankees are generally a fly ball hitting team. The Angels are more of a groundball team, setting up an interesting dynamic. The Angels have a great infield defense, but it might not factor in as much because the Yankees hit the ball to the outfield. The Yankees have a below average infield defense, and that could be exposed because the Angels hit the ball on the ground. Thankfully for the Yankees, they have a fly ball tilt on their pitching staff, which could help even out the differences.

While the infield match-up is closer than the offensive stats would indicate, the Yankees still have an edge. They have a powerful offensive attack from their infield, something the Angels just cannot reproduce.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the outfield, which gives a bit more of an advantage to the Angels.

Production from aging players a Yankee advantage

In the course of my work for this site, I read a lot about baseball. A lot. Reading a wide swath of material sparks ideas for posts, but sometimes I find an article that says it all. I wish I’d come up with the topic myself, and consider writing a full-on post about it, but the original author made the point so completely and so perfectly that there’s no point. B-R founder Sean Forman has a post up on the NY Times Bats blog about the Yankees and their age-defying team. Please, just read it. I will, however, provide a quote or two to demonstrate the awesomeness of the post:

Andy Pettite* was the only pitcher this year over the age of 34 to throw 190 innings of above average baseball.”

* Forman’s spelling error, not mine.

His conclusion is also on the money:

Taken together, no team before the Yankees has had four players aged 35 or older hit for an OPS+ of more than 120. Only three teams, (the 1999 Orioles, the 1998 Padres, and the 1994 Tigers) have had three each. The conventional sabermetric wisdom is that betting on so many older players to perform at a high level is almost certain to lead to disappointing results, but the Yankees have made it work and none of their veterans show any signs of slowing down any time soon.

If I could reproduce the entire thing here, I would. But since I can’t, just go read the post.

Should the Yankees tweak their roster for the ALCS?

Up until a few years ago, teams weren’t allowed to change their rosters between playoff rounds. I don’t remember when exactly they started letting teams do this, but it was 2005 or 2006, somewhere around there. Anyway, now teams can optimize their roster to best match up with their next opponent, which in theory makes for more entertaining playoff games. Does it work? Eh, I dunno.

For the most part, the Yankees roster will remain unchanged. In fact, the only spots that we really need to discuss are the second lefty reliever and maybe the third catcher. As you probably already know, I’m not a fan of letting Jose Molina catch AJ Burnett, but it seems as though the Yankees are, and that’s all that counts. Because of that, it makes sense to carry a third catcher so they can pinch run for Jorge Posada in the late innings of a close game after he already pinch hit for Molina, basically what happened in Game Two of the ALDS.

That leaves just the second LOOGY spot up for grabs, or perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to it as the 11th spot in the bullpen. Unlike the Twins, who had two .900+ OPS lefty hitters in the middle of their lineup, the Angels only have one lefty swinger of note in their starting nine: ex-Yank Bobby Abreu. However, they could pencil as many as five switch hitters into their lineup on any given day, which could/will present some matchup issues. Let’s take a look at the platoon splits of those five switch hitters…

vs. RHP vs. LHP
Erick Aybar .305-.351-.411 .325-.356-.448
Chone Figgins .323-.407-.437 .246-.325-.305
Maicer Izturis .290-.344-.428 .380-.475-.500
Gary Matthews Jr. .261-.341-.352 .221-.323-.384
Kendry Morales .309-.366-.596 .273-.326-.488

Of those five, Figgins has the hardest time with southpaws, and it’s not even close. He basically turns into Yuniesky Betancourt whenever there’s a lefty on the mound, which bodes well for when CC Sabathia or Andy Pettitte start the game. Kendry Morales, who completely annihilated the Yankees this year, drops about 150 OPS points against lefties, but is still a force at the dish. Do you want your second lefty facing him in a big spot, or one of your top righties? Obviously the latter, and you’re not going to carry a second lefty just for lil old Chone.

Based on that, the Yanks would be better off swapping out the 11th man on their staff, currently a second lefty, in favor of another righty. In this case, the second lefty would be Damaso Marte, because no matter how much we want him to be the primary lefty, the Yankees just aren’t going to have it, at least not this year. Who takes his spot? Well the obvious candidate is Brian Bruney, yet another power arm to deploy against the team that struggles against quality fastballs. As long as Joe Girardi understands that Bruney is at the bottom of the short relief pecking order, it’s cool with me. Seriously, there’s no reason for him to enter a game before David Robertson, Al Aceves, Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes unless the Yanks are winning big or losing big.

So, 500+ words later, I think the Yankees should drop Marte off their ALCS roster and replace him with the equally unpredictable Bruney, who is a slightly better matchup because of the arm he throws with and how hard he throws. The ALCS roster isn’t the most efficient because they’re carrying a third catcher, something you don’t often see teams do in the postseason. However, if the Yanks take care of business, it shouldn’t even come into play.

A crazy idea to fill the 2010 outfield

We’ve just finished two days without Yankee baseball and we still have two to go. Once the playoffs started, I hoped we’d be busy enough to avoid the hot stove talk. Alas, I underestimated the Yankees awesomeness. Their sweep gives us a big break in the action, and inevitably we’ll stray into non-playoff topics. I promise, this is crazy enough that it might not even qualify as a hot stove post.

The biggest issue the Yankees face this season is of their outfield. Nick Swisher will be back in right field, but beyond that everything is up in the air. Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner are still under team control, but they’re an average tandem. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it could be a problem because of the imminent left field vacancy.

Johnny Damon is a free agent at the end of the season, and despite numerous reports of his desire to return, it’s no guarantee. He’ll be 36 last season and his defense has declined markedly. I’m guessing that the Yankees would sign him if the price were right, but if it’s not they’ll probably let him walk, leaving a left field vacancy. That will connect the team with Jason Bay and Matt Holliday, but there’s another possible solution.

This guy on MLBTR linked to a Mets.com mailbag regarding the Mets’ off-season. One of the letters mentioned trading Carlos Beltran. See? I told you it was crazy enough to not even qualify as a hot stove post. But that won’t stop me from elaborating a bit.

Beltran would replace Damon in every way. He could replace him in left field and at the two spot in the batting order. Beltran is a better hitter than Damon, getting on base at around the same clip but hitting for more power. He also plays better defense. Both hit for a good average, and both are excellent base stealers. In almost every way, Beltran would be a great addition for the Yankees.

The problem is that the Mets won’t give him away. If they can’t get something they can use to rebuild their team, they’ll just keep him. The Yankees are one of the few teams that can eat Beltran’s $37 million salary between 2010 and 2011, but I’m not sure the Yankees and the Mets match up well for a trade.

Then there’s the issue of the Yankees’ opportunity to sign Beltran after the 2004 season. The team had already signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, and had traded for Randy Johnson, when Scott Boras laid it out for the Yankees: $100 million over six years. Had they signed him then, he’d have just one year and somewhere between $16 and $18 million remaining on his deal. It would hurt to trade for him under the terms the Mets negotiated.

If Carlos Beltran were a free agent, the Yankees might consider signing him. He’ll be 33 in the 2010 season and is coming off a pretty serious knee injury, so there are risks — risks that make trading for him a likely nonstarter. More than anything, it makes me wonder what the Yanks would be like if they had kept Vazquez and signed Beltran that winter. I think the team might be a little bit stronger.

Yanks’ prospects shine in AzFL opener

The Arizona Fall League kicked off it’s two month (or so) long season today, and as usual the Yanks sent a bunch of prospects. It’s an extreme hitter’s league, so don’t get too excited by great offensive lines or discouraged by poor pitching lines. Anyway, the updates will appear every night around this time, kinda like … DotF!

AzFL Surprise (17-4 win over the Peoria Javelinas) Mike Dunn is the only Yanks farmhand on the Surprise roster that didn’t get into the game
Austin Romine: 1 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – caught six innings before being replaced
Brandon Laird: 4 for 6, 2 R, 3 RBI, 1 K
Colin Curtis: 3 for 6, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K – that’s his first three hit game since July 20th
Ian Kennedy: 4 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 5-3 GB/FB – 37 of 53 pitches were strikes (69.8%) … I should also mention that starters are capped at 5 innings in the Fall League … oh, and AzFL FX!
Zack Kroenke: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – just 12 of 25 pitches were strikes (48%)
Grant Duff: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 0-3 GB/FB - 13 of 18 pitches were strikes (72.2%)

Both the Mexican Pacific League and Venezuelan Winter League started their seasons last week, but because those stats are a bitch to get to, I only update them once a week, on Sundays. Here’s the winter ball assignments we know of:

Mexican Pacific League
Naranjeros de Hermosillo: RHP Danny Gil, IF Walt Ibarra

Venezuelan Winter League
Aguilas de Zulia: RHP Josh Schmidt, IF Luis Nunez
Cardenales de Lara: IF Carlos Mendoza, OF Edwar Gonzalez
Caribes de Anzoategui: LHP Juan Marcano, C Jose Gil, IF Emerson Landoni, OF Eduardo Sosa
Leones del Caracas: RHP Romulo Sanchez
Navegantes del Magallanes: C Jesus Montero, IF Reegie Corona, IF Marcos Vechionacci

We’re still waiting for Dominican Winter League and Puerto Rican League rosters. The DWL season is supposed to start Friday, so we should get rosters pretty soon. The PRL doesn’t start until November.

Quick Hits: Peterson on pitching, roster decisions and the ALCS sked

Interesting stuff, no?

* * *

As we await the weekend start to the ALCS, the Yankees are busy attempting to put together a 25-man team best suited to take on the rival Angels. Brian Costa of The Star-Ledger says the roster won’t change much for the ALCS, but he does highlight a few questions the Yanks are attempting to answer.

First, Costa notes that the Jose Molina/A.J. Burnett/Jorge Posada love triangle has yet to be resolved. Girardi liked what he saw when Burnett threw to Molina on Friday, and the two could be battery-mates again this Saturday. If the Yanks pair up Jose and A.J., Francisco Cervelli will be on the roster. Otherwise, the speedy Freddy Guzman could earn a spot on the team.

Next, Costa takes on Damaso Marte. The lefty couldn’t get out the only two lefties he had to face against the Twins, and since the Angels are a right-hand heavy team, Marte may find himself sitting this round out. In his place, the Yanks would take Brian Bruney instead. For what it’s worth, the Angels’ team platoon splits were incredibly consistent. They hit .285/.353/.440 against righties and .286/.342/.446 against lefties. Bruney, who has been throwing in Tampa to stay ready, is probably the better choice for this round.

* * *

Finally, we have a full ALCS schedule, and the game’s start times are, well, odd. Take a look. All times are Eastern, and all games are on FOX:

Game 1 (Friday, Oct. 16 @NYY): 7:57 p.m.
Game 2 (Saturday, Oct. 17 @NYY): 7:57 p.m.
Game 3 (Monday, Oct. 19 @LAA): 4:13 p.m.
Game 4 (Tuesday, Oct. 20 @LAA): 7:57 p.m.
Game 5* (Thursday, Oct. 22 @LAA): 7:57 p.m.
Game 6* (Saturday, Oct. 24 @NYY): 4:13 p.m.
Game 7* (Sunday, Oct. 25@NYY): 8:20 p.m.

* If necessary

Those of us who work will miss a good chunk of Monday’s game, and if the Yanks and Angels need six games, the Saturday afternoon affair will start amidst shadows in the Bronx. That’s the power of high-priced TV deals for you.

* * *

Here’s your open thread for the night. There’s no baseball until Thursday, plus all the local hockey teams are off tonight. The only local sports on tonight are the Nets and Knicks on YES and MSG, respectively. Hopefully you have dinner plans, or at least some stuff on the DVR to catch up on. Chat about whatever you like here, just follow the guidelines and be excellent to each other.

Almost a Yankee: Jack Morris

When the Yankees were in Minnesota, albeit briefly this weekend, Jack Curry tracked down Jack Morris to catch up on old times. The two Jacks talked about 1996 when Jack Morris was almost a Yankee but backed out of the deal at the last minute. Morris, 41 at the time, now says he regrets that decision because he probably would have helped win himself a fourth World Series ring.

I don’t remember the dealings for 1996, and so I thought I’d dig up some archival materials on the dealings between Morris and the Yanks. When the 1996 season rolled around, Morris had been out of baseball for a year. He had a career record of 254-186 with a 3.90 ERA but had flamed out in Toronto and Cleveland in 1993 and 1994 respectively.

At the age of 41, Morris went to the St. Paul Saints to pitch in the independent league. On July 15, 1996, Currey reported that the Yanks were scouting Morris. At the time, the right-hander was 5-1 with a 2.17 ERA, and with David Cone out and Dwight Gooden aching, the Yankees were looking for some back-end help for the starting rotation. “That’s a real long shot,” GM Bob Watson said of landing Morris.

Over the next few days, the Morris rumors increased. On July 20, Morris and the Yankees appeared to be headed for a deal. The financials of the deal were in place, but Morris and the Yankees were haggling over Minor League starts. The veteran wanted to make just one Minor League start before being activated while the Yanks wanted him to make two.

“Jack feels he’s pitched in front of the Yankees for the last 20 years,” Morris’ agent Jim Barrons said. “Either the Yankees feel he can do it or he can’t. He doesn’t think pitching at Columbus will help that.”

The next day, Curry reported that the deal had fallen apart. According to Curry, Watson said “he was not thrilled with Morris’s fastball or his location on pitches.” Barrons claimed that then-Assistant GM Brian Cashman spoke about the dispute over the Minor League stint and not Morris’ fastball velocity which at the time was just 89.

In the end, Morris never made it back to the Big Leagues. The 1996 Yankees acquired Dave Weathers and Cecil Fielder at the deadline and managed to patch together a World Series-winning rotation anyway. No wonder Morris now regrets his decision to push for just one Minor League start.